A man arrested on an unsubstantiated charge of forgery may sue one of the Denver police officers for omitting relevant information in his report, a federal judge decided, even while granting immunity to other officers involved.
“[T]he record reflects that none of the key officers engaged in the sort of ‘digging’ that they knew they were supposed to undertake,” wrote U.S. District Judge Marcia S. Krieger in an opinion issued on Oct. 15.
Raymond K. Bryant, attorney for plaintiff Juan Valenzuela, said on Wednesday that "it should be obvious to any police officer that wear and tear-type damage to an ID card is not an attempt to commit forgery." He added, "How can any airline passenger feel safe if the Denver police are willing to arrest on such flimsy curiosities?"
On Feb. 15, 2017, Valenzuela went through a security checkpoint in Denver International Airport. He did not have a current driver license, but showed his expired California identification to the Transportation Security Administration officer. The card was visibly damaged, and Valenzuela even conceded he was unsure whether TSA would accept the documentation.
Multiple personnel examined the card and asked about the damage, according to the court's narrative of events. They also inquired why Valenzuela had no current Colorado identification despite being a resident.
A supervisor took the ID to a Denver Police Department officer stationed at the checkpoint, who believed the card was “suspicious.” Additional law enforcement also joined the inquiry, and one officer opined that the ID “felt to me to be a fraud.” She subsequently advised Valenzuela of his Miranda rights and began an interrogation.
Eventually, the three Denver police personnel onsite decided to detain Valenzuela, and handcuffed him and took him to a holding cell.
Officer Karl Coleman reached the National Crime Information Center and learned that Valenzuea did indeed have a valid California driver license with the same identification number as the damaged card. None of the officers involved indicated they were aware California provides a unique number to each individual, rather than each card. Ultimately, they arrested Valenzuela for forgery.
Valenzuela spent two days in Denver jail and the Denver District Attorney's Office charged him. Due to his arrest, Valenzuela’s employer fired him. Ultimately, prosecutors determined the ID was not a forgery and dismissed the charges.
He then sued the Denver officers for unlawful arrest and detention, alleging a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Valenzuela also filed a federal claim against the city of Denver for failing to adequately train and supervise its officers.
“There is no dispute that Mr. Valenzuela was subjected to a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes, as he was detained and arrested as a result of the officers’ belief that the ID card he had presented was a forgery,” wrote Krieger. But the central question was whether the officers had probable cause to believe he committed a crime.
The officers, she found, failed to focus on whether Valenzuela had altered the card to misrepresent his identity, a key element of forgery.
“The beliefs of the officers as to alteration are insufficient to satisfy probable cause,” Krieger wrote. “Indeed, it is undisputed that every effort to corroborate the identity information on the card – by comparing it with Mr. Valenzuela’s other identification or with information found in the NCIC database – suggested that Mr. Valenzuela was indeed who he purported to be.”
However, the officers asserted a defense of qualified immunity, which is a judicial doctrine precluding civil liability for government employees unless they violate a clearly-established constitutional right. In other words, the officers had to be aware of a prior case that deemed similar conduct from law enforcement unacceptable.
Krieger conducted her own research and found no such precedent, and therefore dismissed Valenzuela’s Fourth Amendment claim against the officers.
Valenzuela also directed a claim directly at Coleman for reportedly preparing a probable cause statement that omitted information which would have undermined the basis for his arrest. Specifically, Coleman did not indicate that security features on the card were intact, that Valenzuela reportedly had other documentation confirming his identity and that California confirmed the number on the ID.
Krieger ruled there were sufficient allegations to allow the claim to continue on the deficient probable cause statement — despite the absence of a clear precedent.
“Again, Mr. Valenzuela has not identified any specific case that recognizes the existence of a constitutional claim in similar factual circumstances,” she indicated, “but the Court agrees with him that, with regard to this claim, Officer Coleman’s conduct is so fundamentally inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment’s ‘probable cause’ requirement that no corresponding caselaw is necessary.”
In examining whether Denver itself was liable for failing to train its officers, Krieger determined that the city had the correct policy in place, but the employees in Valenzuela’s case did not follow it. One of them even admitted at his deposition: “I don’t know if I conformed my behavior to the policy.”
The officers, the city wrote in its request to dismiss the case, "had arguable probable cause to arrest Mr. Valenzuela given the condition of the ID Card, lack of records relating to the ID Card," and Valenzuela's lack of a Colorado identification given that he reportedly needed one for his job.
The city did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Bryant, Valenzuela's lawyer, indicated he would likely appeal the judge's dismissal of the other claims.
"Denver's complete lack of training on the investigation of ID cards is so embarrassing that its airport officers did not even know that they should look at the anti-fraud and anti-tampering security features embedded in every state ID card to see that," he said.
The case is Valenzuela v. Coleman.