COLORADO SPRINGS — Undercover agents infiltrated their ranks and police cruisers tailed them through the streets of downtown Colorado Springs. After a daylong trial, four members of a student-led protest group were convicted of obstructing traffic.
A Municipal Court jury on Friday found Andrew Hunt, 23, Taylor Donner, 24, Eric Verlo, 56, and Nazli McDonnell, 55, guilty of a single misdemeanor count, while acquitting them of a second misdemeanor alleging failure to disperse.
Impeding a roadway is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Sentencing is scheduled for May 21.
The four were arrested March 26, 2017, following what officers acknowledge was a peaceful protest, albeit one that flouted traffic ordinances as a group of roughly 15 protesters took their March Against Imperialism into the streets.
For 15 minutes, members of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs-chartered Marxist discussion group blocked or slowed traffic on an eight-block route beginning and ending at City Hall, as they chanted and waved signs warning of capitalism and climate change, police testified in Colorado Springs Municipal Court.
“That’s what created the great six-car traffic jam on a Sunday evening,” derided attorney David Lindsey of Denver, who represented Donner. Lindsey angled for the jury to toss the charges despite footage from police dash cams, body cams and downtown security cameras documenting nearly every step they took through the streets.
The trial in city court marked the conclusion of an unusual case that revealed secret efforts by Colorado Springs police and their partner agencies to monitor local protest groups by embedding undercover officers posing as socialists.
Police have previously refused to provide details on how common the practice is or whether they have modified their approach in the wake of publicity over last year’s protest.
The sting operation, which emerged in video evidence turned over by police before trial, fueled a defense effort to have the cases dismissed for “outrageous governmental conduct.” Judge Kristen L. Hoffecker threw out the motion in December, stating in a written order that police were justified in surveiling protest groups because of violence committed at protests elsewhere in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election.
But the operation – conducted by Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence (VNI), a multiagency police unit – was so guarded that the two undercover agents involved in attending a protest planning meeting at a Colorado Springs brewpub were permitted to testify last year without using their real names. One of them identified himself as a deputy with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
Members of the group and their attorneys framed their arrests as an attempt to quash an unpopular message.
They pointed to comments made by police on their own recordings, including one officer who said, “I wish my camera wasn’t on right now.” Another officer mocked their cause, telling longtime local protester Verlo he could rejoin his “compatriots” after he’d been served his summons outside City Hall.
When Verlo pointed out that most protesters had dispersed upon seeing him arrested, the officer retorted, “Some protesters they turned out to be.”
City attorneys said the group ignored repeated orders to disperse broadcast through loudspeakers mounted to police cars.
“It’s not about the message they communicated,” said city prosecutor Shantel Withrow. “It’s about the conduct and choosing to break the law and break ordinances as they protested.”
The four-woman, two-man jury concluded that the evidence “clearly” established the group had caused traffic backups during their march, but that prosecutors fell short of proving the protesters heard the police warnings over their group chants, said jury forewoman Karrie Chauvin.
In a case that was otherwise clear cut, Chauvin called the decision to embed undercover agents with the socialist group “curious,” suggesting it wasn’t justified by evidence produced in court.
“That’s an expensive use of police manpower,” she added.
Prominent civil rights attorney David Lane, who represented Verlo and McDonnell along with Andrew McNulty, said the police broke a federal rule when they infiltrated a “completely peaceful” political group with no criminal history and violated the protesters’ constitutional rights to free speech and due process by arresting them. That defense was ruled inadmissable.
All four defendants had Denver attorneys who represented them for free. They complained that rulings by Hoffecker tied their hands in arguing that the group’s protest rights outweighed the inconvenience they caused.
“By being arrested, their First Amendment rights were violated – that’s the big thing we wanted to say that we couldn’t,” said Katie Hartigan, who represented Hunt.
Even so, all three defense attorneys skirted the edges of what they were permitted to say in encouraging the jury to acquit, drawing comparisons to famous acts of civil disobedience, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama.
“You are more powerful than this judge,” Lindsey told the jurors.
Chauvin said the panel reached the conclusion that the group’s politics were “irrelevant” and that police intervened only because they opted to tie up traffic.
“I was totally surprised by the verdict,” said Hunt. “I had gone to the Women’s March a couple weeks earlier and marched in the streets and nothing happened. There’s no way we weren’t targeted by police.”
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