ACLU lawyers filed suit today against the Denver Police Department (DPD), asserting that it violated Colorado’s open records laws when it refused to disclose any documents from the file of its investigation of two African-American citizens’ complaints of racial profiling arising from a traffic stop on February 13, 2009.

The ACLU’s clients, Ashford Wortham and Cornelius Campbell, complained to the DPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) that they were stopped for no reason, searched without cause, taunted with racial epithets and other verbal abuse, and finally released after Mr. Wortham received a groundless citation for three minor traffic charges.

Although the DPD concluded that the racial profiling complaint was “not substantiated,” a Denver County Court judge who heard testimony about the incident reached the opposite conclusion.  After a bench trial in which Mr. Campbell rebutted the testimony of Sergeant Perry Speelman, the ranking officer at the traffic stop, the court dismissed the traffic charges.  Judge Aileen Ortiz-White concluded that the “Police conduct was extreme, profane and racially motivated.”  The Court further explained that Wortham and Campbell were “unlawfully detained for an unreasonable time and without reasonable suspicion.”

When Wortham and Campbell then made a written request for the IAB investigation file, they were turned down on the ground that disclosure would be “contrary to the public interest.”  According to Mary Dulacki, Records Coordinator for the Department of Safety, when IAB concludes that an accusation of police misconduct is not substantiated, the officers’ right of privacy trumps the public’s right to know.

“Our clients, as well as Denver taxpayers, have a legitimate interest in knowing whether the Denver Police Department took seriously the accusation of racial profiling,” said Steve Zansberg, of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, L.L.P., who, along with his colleagues Chris Beall and Adam Platt, is litigating the case as an ACLU cooperating attorney.  “The public’s right to know is paramount, and the right of privacy does not prevent disclosure about what police officers do while they are on the job, in uniform, conducting traffic stops and issuing tickets.”

“The public interest in disclosure is especially strong in this case,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director, “because when Mr. Wortham represented himself in Denver County Court, the judge heard the testimony, threw out the traffic charges, and concluded that the police actions were ‘extreme, profane, and racially motivated.’  She further concluded that our clients were ‘unlawfully detained’ and held ‘without reasonable suspicion.’ Such extraordinary judicial findings cry out for further public explanation and disclosure.”

Silverstein noted that today’s suit marks the sixth time in recent years that the ACLU of Colorado has sued the Denver Police Department for refusing to disclose information about an investigation of alleged police misconduct.  Each time, the lawsuit prompted Denver to release the files.  “When it comes to violating the open records laws, the Denver Police Department is a habitual offender,” Silverstein said.  “The legislature should add a three-strikes provision to the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act.”

Wortham and Campbell’s case resembles one filed in 2004 on behalf of Terrill Johnson, an African American Denver resident who had also filed a complaint with the DPD alleging that he was the victim of racial profiling.  When the DPD refused to disclose any information about its investigation, the ACLU successfully sued on Johnson’s behalf for release of the file, which identified officer Perry Speelman—before his promotion to sergeant—as one of the officers involved.  One of the documents released at that time showed that Speelman had already been the subject of 17 internal affairs investigations.   When Johnson subsequently filed a civil rights lawsuit seeking damages for the incident, Speelman was named as a defendant.  Denver settled that lawsuit for $75,000.

The county court’s written order Wortham and Campbell's case states as follows:

"No PC [Probable Cause] for stop.  Charges not proved BRD [Beyond Reasonable Doubt].  Police conduct was extreme, profane, and racially motivated.  Def and passenger were unlawfully detained for unreasonable time and without reasonable suspicion.  Officer’s credibility was seriously questioned based on his testimony about the location of the stop and details of the stop."

more on this case