During the summer of 2020, people across the country took to the streets to protest police violence, call for racial justice, and demand police reform. While Denver citizens exercised their right to peacefully protest, Denver police and police from surrounding jurisdictions responded with indiscriminate violence through a dangerous deployment of so-called “less lethal” weapons, including shotgun rounds, flash-bang grenades, and chemical weapons.
In June 2020, the ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit against the City and County of Denver, the City of Aurora, and several police officers on behalf of protesters who were injured by police. The lawsuit challenged the use of less-lethal weapons that police unleashed against the protesters with no regard for safety, life, or the law. In March 2022, following a three-week federal trial against the City and County of Denver and a Denver Police Officer, the jury returned a verdict of $14 million in damages for the group of 12 plaintiffs and imposed a punitive damage award.
Shortly before trial, the claims against the City of Aurora and Aurora police officers who shot two of the plaintiffs were separated from the case against Denver. The district court subsequently denied Aurora’s claim of qualified immunity, finding that the law was clearly established that an officer is not permitted to shoot a protester with less-lethal munitions when that protester is committing no crime more serious than a misdemeanor, not threatening anyone, and not attempting to flee. The Aurora defendants appealed the denial of qualified immunity to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
On November 14, 2023, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision that the Aurora Defendants can be held liable for the officers’ indiscriminate use of less lethal weapons and the injuries caused by those actions. In a precedent setting opinion, the court makes clear that “the use of less-lethal munitions—as with any other type of pain-inflicting compliance technique—is unconstitutionally excessive force when applied to an unthreatening protester who has neither committed a serious offense nor attempted to flee.”