An Aurora woman may sue the police officer who arrested her at Denver Health by mistaking her for a different person at a different hospital, a federal judge has ruled.
Two members of the Denver Police Department, Officers Don Whyde and Brian Long, were investigating a burglary and assault in downtown Denver when they arrived at the wrong hospital, took the wrong person into custody and wrongfully jailed her twice. Sarah Cook, who was at Denver Health Medical Center as a potential victim of sexual assault, sued the officers, the hospital and the city of Denver for their mistake.
Although U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer dismissed most of Cook’s claims on Wednesday, he allowed her unlawful arrest claim against Whyde to proceed. There was no probable cause that justified Cook’s arrest, based on what the officers reportedly knew about the crime they were supposed to be investigating.
“Here, the allegations show that the officers did not make a mistake that was reasonable under the circumstances,” Brimmer wrote in a Sept. 29 order.
The police department gave both officers 10-day suspensions for their failure to follow departmental policies and have the victim in their investigation show up to identify the suspect. At the time, the department also called the circumstances of Cook's case "unique," according to CBS4.
"We feel that police officers and departments receive the benefit of the doubt under the law most times, which isn’t fair or just," said Sean Simeson of Baumgartner Law, who is representing Cook. "In this case, we are going to be able to hold the main culprit accountable for his actions, but by absolving the city, the other officer and Denver Health of any responsibility, the court is protecting the city and its police officers from financial liability, which enables poor police work and unlawful practices by police officers."
According to Cook’s civil lawsuit, she went to a bar on Aug. 2, 2019, following a Colorado Rockies game. At one moment, she was dancing with friends. But the next thing she recalled, it was 1:30 the next morning and Cook was being treated medically as the victim of a possible drugging and sexual assault.
Thirty minutes later, Whyde and Long responded to a burglary and assault at 1800 Larimer Street. The victim, a security guard at the building, told the officers there was surveillance footage available, but they did not view it at that time.
The officers allegedly knew about where the suspect had been transported (St. Joseph Hospital) and her description (thin, blonde hair, pink shirt and blue jeans). Cook is tall with black hair, and was at Denver Health.
Whyde and Long traveled to the wrong hospital — Denver Health — and asked a nurse to see the woman who had been transported from downtown. The nurse pointed to Cook, but no additional measures were reportedly taken to verify that Cook was the suspect in the officers’ investigation.
Instead, Whyde arrested Cook and transported her to the Denver jail, allegedly before she was medically stabilized. A nurse at the jail noticed severe swelling on Cook’s lip and recommended that she return to the hospital. Upon her second visit, Cook reported she had been arrested for a crime she did not remember, and that she had no memory of the previous four or five hours.
Subsequently, a detective viewed the surveillance footage of the 1800 Larimer Street burglary and assault. Cook had been released on bond on Aug. 4, after her second trip to jail. The detective then spoke to the district attorney’s office and requested the charges against her be dropped.
Denver Health, the city, and officers Whyde and Long all asked the court to dismiss Cook’s claims against them for their role in her wrongful arrest. Cook requested that Brimmer not "reward halfwitted police work," arguing that no reasonable officer would have made an arrest knowing their suspect was female, intoxicated and transported from downtown on a weekend, without anything more specific.
In his defense, Whyde maintained that he was acting on information received from numerous parties, and assumed Long had already identified Cook as the suspect.
"Defendant specifically asked hospital staff for information related to any white female that had been transported from 1800 Larimer Street (the location of the incident)," Whyde's attorneys wrote to the court. "Hospital staff then called EMS dispatch who informed Defendant that they had transported a white female from 1800 Larimer Street to [Denver Health] ... Hospital staff then specifically directed Defendant to Plaintiff’s hospital room."
Brimmer agreed Cook had not plausibly stated a claim for malpractice against Denver Health because there was no legal requirement for the nurse to confirm that the officers had probable cause to arrest Cook — or that Cook was even the person they were looking for. He also found no credible allegation that her arrest was the result of a widespread policy or practice attributable to the city of Denver itself.
For the two officers, the judge noted that there was indeed an unconstitutional arrest, but the men were not equally culpable under Cook’s allegations. Although Whyde and Long each had the same information about their intended suspect, Cook had alleged Whyde to be the arresting officer. Therefore, only Whyde could be held liable for the wrongful arrest. Brimmer declined to grant Whyde qualified immunity, which shields government employees from liability unless they violate a clearly-established legal right.
The judge also dismissed Cook’s claim of false imprisonment for her handcuffing and detention in jail. The U.S. Constitution does not guarantee that only guilty people will be arrested, Brimmer wrote, and the officers had not acted with reckless disregard for Cook’s safety.
“Although Officer Whyde arrested plaintiff without probable cause and could have done more to verify whether plaintiff was the suspect of the burglary, a police officer does not commit false imprisonment merely by arresting someone who happens to be innocent,” he concluded.
The Denver Police Department confirmed that both Whyde and Long remain officers.
The case is Cook v. Whyde et al.