A financial settlement in an illegal-arrest claim

Co-authored by David Grant Long

A man who says he was illegally arrested and detained by the Montezuma County Sheriff ’s Office last year received a $25,000 settlement in June from the county’s insurance company.

Marion Harper III of Cortez had filed a civil complaint on Nov. 3, 2011, against the sheriff ’s office and the board of county commissioners in District Court in which he sought $100,000 and attorney’s fees.

On June 11, County Commission Chairman Steve Chappell signed the settlement agreement.

“I was illegally arrested and held,” Harper stated in his handwritten complaint, acting as his own attorney. “No charges were filed [and] no charges were explained. My constitutional right to equal protection under the law was violated based on my race, religion, and political beliefs.”

According to court documents, Harper said he was arrested and held on Oct. 17, 2011, by members of the sheriff ’s office, including Undersheriff Robin Cronk, who told him that County Court Judge Jenni- Lynn Lawrence had issued a remand order for him.

A remand is an order for someone to be taken into custody.

However, according to court documents, no such order existed.

In a Dec. 2, 2011, letter to Michael Green, who acted as attorney for the sheriff ’s office and the county commissioners, Harper reiterated that on Oct. 17, he was “illegally arrested by Undersheriff Cronk.”

He continued, “I did not have any pending charges; there were no subsequent charges filed against me; and there was no remand issued by Judge Lawrence or any other judge in Montezuma County. Undersheriff Cronk violated my federal civil rights as well as my Constitutional right to equal protection under the law regardless of race, religion, tribal affiliation, and/or political persuasion.” Harper is African- American.

In the letter to Green, he continued, “My financial well-being has been severely damaged due to the high-profile nature of the arrest (which occurred on the corner of Main Street and Harrison Street in the middle of rush hour traffic. Traffic actually had to be stopped while the Undersheriff and five patrol vehicles descended on a single unarmed man with an armload of groceries). The MCSO has created a criminal record that in no way reflects the person that I really am.”

On Oct. 14, 2011, Harper had appeared in county court before Judge Lawrence to seek a restraining order against a man he said had stolen the rims from his car and threatened to fight him. The judge decided not to grant the restraining order because of insufficient information, according to a minute order filed Oct. 14.

Harper told the Free Press that he then used some swear words in court and was reprimanded by Lawrence, and that appeared to be the end of the matter.

“She said there wasn’t enough information to grant the restraining order and asked if I had anything else to say. I said something like that he was causing problems and he needed to get the fuck out of there, or get his goddamn ass out of there, something like that. She said, ‘Don’t use that language in my courtroom’ and I immediately apologized, and said I didn’t mean to disrespect her in any way.”

But in the afternoon of the following Monday, Harper said, he was taken into custody while he was walking on Main Street near City Market after buying groceries.

Harper said five or six sheriff ’s cars pulled up and Cronk told him he had been remanded to court. Harper said he was handcuffed “so tight there were no links left” and placed in the back of a sheriff ’s van, driven to the parking lot of the county court building, and kept sitting there for an hour or two until court proceedings were done for the day.

Then, he said, he was taken into the building, past eight or nine deputies “lined up along the hallway,” and brought before Lawrence. “The undersheriff said, ‘If I were you, I’d apologize.’ They made me apologize to her for cussing in her courtroom.” Harper was then released, he said.

“It was very humiliating,” he said. “I guess they thought they would teach me a lesson or something.”

Sheriff Dennis Spruell told the Free Press that Harper was indeed taken to court by Cronk, but that there were only two patrol cars involved, not five or six.

He said when Harper was appearing before Lawrence (seeking the restraining order), there were no courtroom security personnel actually inside the courtroom, only outside it. Spruell said Cronk later heard that the judge had said Harper “was being very loud and cursing and if courtroom security had been there that day he would have gone to jail.”

Both Harper and Spruell said there were no threats to the judge, only cursing.

Spruell said, “Being the nice guy that he is,” the undersheriff was concerned about the allegedly disrespectful behavior and took it upon himself to make Harper apologize.

“He decided that rather than throw this man in jail, he would give him the chance to apologize. So they stopped him [Harper] and asked him, ‘Do you want to go to jail or apologize to the judge?’ and Marion said he would apologize.”

Because Harper does not have a car, said Spruell, he was placed into a patrol vehicle for the ride to court. Spruell said Harper was indeed handcuffed. “The deputies do that when they transport someone. I’m not agreeing with it. I don’t agree with it. It happened.”

Spruell said he had no knowledge of how long Harper might have been kept sitting in the vehicle before talking to the judge. The sheriff said he did not agree with the amount of the county’s settlement, “but they felt it was easier to pay it off than to fight it.”

However, he said Cronk’s actions were indeed wrong and that he had been informed of this. “It’s been taken care of,” Spruell said. “It will not happen again. There were consequences.

“When we screw up, we’re going to take the blame for it, and that was a screw-up, no doubt about it. We’re not going to pretend we didn’t do anything wrong and it shouldn’t have happened.”

In a May 21 response to other filings by the defendants, Harper wrote that he had initiated a complaint with the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline in late 2011 into Lawrence’s part in the detention; however, a preliminary inquiry and investigation by the CCJD in February cleared her of any wrongdoing, according to the response.

Harper has previously filed complaints against the sheriff ’s office and other local entities and officials. In 2004, he filed voluminous complaints against the sheriff ’s office and then-Sheriff Joey Chavez, the Cortez Police Department, District Judge Todd Plewe, and several other officials and entities over his treatment while in the county detention center awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges. He complained about a lack of access to court forms, difficulty in voting while in jail, and numerous other allegations. All those complaints were eventually dismissed.

According to County Administrator Ashton Harrison, claims such as Harper’s are handled by the county’s insurance company, Trident Insurance Services of San Antonio, Texas.

“When there is a lawsuit for money, our insurance company finds an attorney to represent us to see if it has merit,” he said.

Liability cases typically stem from the sheriff ’s office and detention center, he said, just because of the nature of the work involved. In cases where the county is sued, Harrison said there are three possibilities.

One is that the county fights the charges in court and wins. “That’s rare,” he said.

Other times, the county and insurers make a cost-benefit decision. “Is the amount of the settlement worth the legal fees? Would they outweigh any settlement? If so, the insurance company may say, ‘Let’s settle it.’ That’s rare.”

And in certain other cases, the insurance company and its attorneys may immediately urge that a settlement be sought.

“Sometimes, if they think it’s a losing case based on the facts, we try to go to settlement right off the bat, even before a court tries to order us to settle,” Harrison said.

Harrison said ultimately the decision is up to the insurance company. “But their attorneys try and stay in contact with us on what we think is a fair settlement and they don’t unilaterally make a settlement.”

Harrison said during his more than six years with Montezuma County this is the first case where the county has paid a financial settlement for such a complaint. He said there was a case involving the termination of a sheriff ’s deputy by Sheriff Gerald Wallace shortly after the 2006 primary election that was resolved without a payout.

“This is the first one since I’ve been here, period, that we’ve settled for money,” Harrison said.

Harper graduated this spring from Fort Lewis College with a bachelor’s degree in Native American studies.

He has a record of misdemeanor offenses in years past, including DUI and assault.

Most recently, on July 6 he was charged with harassment and disorderly conduct for allegedly threatening a neighbor in his apartment complex and attempting to strike him with an piece of broken iron railing while he was intoxicated.

“I’m not an angel,” Harper said. “I drink and I sometimes get in trouble.”

However, he said his offenses have been fairly minor and he believes that for years there has been a pattern in Montezuma County of harassment by law enforcement against people who are low-income and don’t have the money to hire an attorney.

From August 2012.