| SkyHiNews.com

Craig settles one excessive force suit, while another moves forward

The city of Craig in January settled a lawsuit alleging excessive force against two officers over a 2018 tasing incident, the second civil rights complaint of its type filed against police force members since July.

Croix Orona’s federal complaint didn’t attract the level of publicity generated by another lawsuit with video exhibits of officers tasing a man purportedly experiencing a mental health crisis at his residence on Feb. 18, 2020.

The civil lawsuit by Orona, however, cast police in a similar light as the three officers being sued by another local resident, Grayson Dennis: law enforcement allegedly escalating a matter by tasing and hurting an individual at his residence. For its part, the city maintained in court filings its officers acted in good faith during the Orona incident, and in the case of Dennis, the police deployed the tasers in reaction to his “acts and conduct,” according to court filings.

On Jan. 21, U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello signed an order dismissing Orona’s suit against Craig with prejudice, meaning Orona cannot sue the city again on the same allegations.

“Plaintiff and the City have reached a resolution of all claims against the City,” said a joint motion from the parties seeking dismissal of the case, which stemmed from an incident on July 18, 2018, when officers — while responding to an anonymous call of a break-in — encountered Orona sitting on his porch before tasering him multiple times.

Details on the settlement and whether it involved the city admitting liability or making a monetary payment to Orona were not available Thursday. City attorney Heather Cannon declined comment and Denver attorney Eric M. Ziporin 
of of the Denver-based civil litigation defense firm SGR LLC would not discuss the settlement.

“Given that litigation is pending against the City of Craig, we decline to comment,” Ziporon said in an email.

The Denver firm representing Orona, Civil Rights Litigation Group PLLC, did not respond to a message seeking comment.

For the city of Craig, the settlement came three weeks before Police Chief Jerry DeLong resigned Feb. 9 from the force after he and City Manager Peter Brixius clashed over DeLong’s hiring of a new school resource officer without consulting with Moffat County School District Superintendent Scott Pankow, based on Craig city emails obtained through a Colorado Open Records Request. Michael Cochran currently is the interim chief of police.

DeLong’s name surfaced in a Monday proposed scheduling order — which is a set of deadlines for motions, evidence collection, witness disclosure and other matters — in Dennis’ lawsuit against Craig officers Grant Laehr, Joshua Lyons and Daron Hasir.

The Denver firm suing the officers on Dennis’ behalf — Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman LLC — placed DeLong’s name on a list of witnesses it plans to depose about the incident. Other witnesses the plaintiff’s attorneys plan to depose include medical professional, the three defendant officers and other law enforcement personnel.

The defense team for the Craig government listed Dennis, as well as his father and girlfriend, as witnesses it plans to query, as well as multiple physicians and expert witnesses, according to court papers.

Grayson Dennis (in grey sweatshirt) filed a civil suit against three Craig Police Department officers after a February 2020 incident in which he was tased multiple times — including while handcuffed — resulting in acute respiratory failure.
Body Camera Footage from Craig Police

In court filings, Dennis’ attorneys said he was a victim of excessive force by police officers responding to his residence after he called 911 reporting he was experiencing a mental health crisis. When police arrived on the scene they initially spent time outside of the residence talking to Dennis’ father before entering the home, based on video footage from a police officer’s body camera. Dennis told officers he wanted their help because he believed he had taken cyanide and other substances, but became combative with authorities when they tried to detain him.

“Predictably, having been subjected to grossly excessive force and being tased at least five times, Mr. Dennis was by then experiencing a medical crisis on top of a mental health crisis,” said Monday’s filing. “He was transported to Memorial Hospital in Craig, where he was intubated and diagnosed with acute respiratory failure before being flown via Flight for Life to a Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit. When he woke up Mr. Dennis had tubes coming out of his mouth, a catheter, and was unsure where he was or what had happened. All he knew was that he had called 911 for help and ended up seriously brutalized and in fear for his life.”

Attorney John Holland, who filed the complaint with Rachel Kennedy, said Thursday they were aware of Orona’s case and settlement, yet it has no bearing on how the one from Dennis will unfold.

“It’s interesting to us in terms of a pattern, that there is a widespread problem in Craig with CIT (crisis intervention team) training,” Holland said.

Dennis hasn’t recovered from the incident, the attorneys said.

“This case has had a significant impact on him,” Kennedy said. “He called for help in the midst of a mental health crisis, where he just needed some support and medical assistance and ended up being brutalized, and he’s dealing with the emotion and the impacts of it.”

Holland said, “They turned this into a police case instead of a mental health case.”

The police officers were not disciplined, as far as the attorneys could tell. Craig’s attorney Cannon declined comment when asked about whether the officers were disciplined or remained employed with the CPD. She cited personnel reasons for not providing the information.

As well, Ziporin would not comment on Dennis’ pending suit against the city.

The suit by Dennis was filed in the U.S. District Court of Denver in October. In July, Orona took two Craig officers to the same court over an incident two years ago on July 23, 2018.

Police on that date were in Orona’s neighborhood looking for what was described as a tall bearded man wearing a hoodie who may have tried to break into a home, the suit said. Not having an exact physical address, the two officers saw Orona sitting on his porch, the suit said.

Though Orona did not fit the description, police asked him several questions, which he declined to answer, the suit said.

“Without any provocation, Defendant Officers drew their Tasers and aimed them at Plaintiff,” the suit said, adding Orona raised his empty hands and asked police to leave his property.

“As the officers continued to approach, Plaintiff slowly attempted to open the door of his residence to get away from the threats surrounding him,” the suit said. “Annoyed and perturbed at Plaintiff’s refusal to submit to the officers’ unwarranted show of authority, and angry that Plaintiff was attempting to get away from them, the Defendant Officers fired their Tasers at Plaintiff and chased him inside his home.”

Officers then tackled him, pinned him down and continue to taser him, the suit alleged.

“The Defendant officers did not relent,” the suit said. “Instead, the Defendant Officers used their Tasers on Plaintiff numerous times during a span of about a minute, while Plaintiff had his hands up and in a position of surrender and while officers were on top of him. Plaintiff cried out for help as Defendant Officers stunned him again and again. Suddenly, Plaintiff went completely quiet and unconscious.”

Police took Orona to a medical center before he was transported to jail on obstructing justice and resisting-arrest charges.

“The District Attorney for Moffat County eventually dismissed the resisting arrest and obstruction charges against Plaintiff because there was not sufficient evidence to support the charges,” the suit said.

The suit claimed police violated Orona’s First Amendment right to free speech and his Fourth Amendment right protecting him from unlawful search and seizure.

Winter Park one step closer to licensing short-term rentals


Short term vacation rentals in Breckenridge have similar regulations to some of the proposed Winter Park ideas, including annual licensing.

It seems likely that come October short-term rentals in Winter Park will be required to register and pay for an annual license, in addition to complying with other new rules, after they received initial approval from town council.

On Tuesday, an ordinance regulating short-term rentals passed the first reading and is scheduled for final approval and a public hearing on March 16.

In an effort to better address the impacts of short-term rentals, the approved ordinance outlines new responsibilities for owners of the popular form of lodging. On top of annual licensing, short-term rentals must designate a 24/7 responsible agent to respond to concerns, include certain information in advertisements, not offer on-street overnight parking and comply with health and safety requirements.

Most of all, owners must provide their guests with the information about town regulations regarding rentals.

“We really view this as an opportunity for first-time visitors or even regular visitors to come into the unit and have some communication in terms of the basic expectations of being a good neighbor and a good visitor,” Assistant Town Manager Alisha Janes said.

The registration period for short-term rentals will start in October and the process will require the rentals to certify compliance with safety protocols and town regulations including parking, noise, garbage disposal, open burning and drought mitigation.

A proposed fee for the annual license is $150, but town council will be voting on the fee separately from the approved ordinance.

Rentals must have a responsible agent, either an individual or property management group, that is available at any time to respond within an hour to concerns or complaints. When advertising, rentals must list the license number, as well as the number of on-site parking spaces available.

Should units not comply with the requirements, the ordinance also gives the town the ability to fine owners up to $1,000 and prohibit the units from getting a license for a two-year period.

For larger rentals that can house over 20 people, the ordinance requires the owner to get a special use permit through the Planning and Zoning Committee.

In other business:

• Winter Park is moving forward with Saunders Construction out of Englewood as the general contractor for the new transit maintenance facility, with work expected to begin in August. Saunders Construction recently completed the Jim Myers Public Works Facility in Winter Park. The transit department also received approval for a new voice announcement system for the Lift buses.

• An agreement with Rendezvous for the event center at Hideaway Park was amended to defer the development’s 2020 principal payment of $250,000 to 2028 due to the lack of events during the pandemic.

• Town staff received approval to apply for an Open Lands, Rivers and Trails grant from the county for purchasing a portion of the land the Fraser River Trail is on to maintain public access.

• Council passed a proportional cost-sharing agreement with the Roam development for improvements along Vasquez Road.

• The Emergency Business Assistance fund was seeded with $50,000 for assisting businesses named in county public health orders or reimbursing businesses for complying with increased restrictions from the Grandstar program or health orders. Council member Rebecca Kaufman abstained from the vote.


Top 5 most-read stories on SkyHiNews.com, week of Feb. 28

The Fraser to Granby Trail, just south of the gazebo parking lot, overlooking Granby Ranch.
Sky-Hi News file photo

Editor’s note: Stories in this list received the most page views on SkyHiNews.com for the past week.

1. Man seriously hurt in Fraser hammer attack, police say

A man has been hospitalized for a fractured skull after he was struck in the head by a hammer.

According to Fraser Winter Park Police, officers were dispatched Tuesday to County Road 8 and Quail Drive for a report of an injured man bleeding from the head. Upon arrival, officers found the injured man and two others in a white pickup truck leaving the area.

The victim and a witness told police that they had been working in a home under construction on Quail Drive. The injured man told officers that during this work, a co-worker attacked him and struck him in the head with a hammer. The alleged attacker fled out the backdoor headed north toward County Road 8, according to the release.

– Amy Golden

2. Granby named top spot to buy winter vacation home

Joining other Colorado ski-resort towns like Vail and Breckenridge, Granby has been named one of the 10 best places in the U.S. to buy a winter vacation home by the rental website Vacasa, which has the county ranked No. 9.

This is the first year Granby has appeared on Vacasa’s list, which was published in Forbes Magazine.

“It was no surprise that states like Colorado, Montana, and Vermont were featured prominently again this winter, but we did welcome a first-time destination to the list: Granby, Colorado, an up-and-coming mountain town nestled between Winter Park and Grand Lake,” Vacasa VP of Sales and Marketing Shaun Greer told Forbes.

– McKenna Harford

3. Providers can’t stop non-residents from getting vaccinated

With vaccine availability still limited statewide and nationwide, Grand County is seeing a different type of visitor this winter: the vaccine tourist.

Grand County Public Health Director Abbie Baker reported that between a third and a half of vaccines distributed by a local provider have gone to non-residents. This impairs local work to immunize residents because of the limited number of vaccines allocated to the county.

Doses are distributed by the state to counties based on census population data, and Grand makes up only 0.3% of the state’s population. However, local providers can’t verify residency when distributing those vaccines.

– Amy Golden

4. Staffing woes haunt Grand County

Grand County’s four dispatchers are working 12 hour shifts alone.

During their shift, they answer all 911 and nonemergency calls at the 24-hour agency while simultaneously managing conversations across fire departments, emergency medical services, US Forest Service, search and rescue, and more. The lone dispatcher often goes without breaks, even if they’ve just addressed an intense call.

At the jail, the only officer on the floor sometimes waits 10-15 minutes to get back up if there’s a scuffle with an inmate. More than 20% of the positions in the 60-person sheriff’s office are currently vacant and it’s hurting services in the county.

– Amy Golden

5. Dumont man arrested for 1982 killings of 2 women near Breckenridge

Investigators believe they’ve found the man responsible for killing a pair of young women near Breckenridge in 1982.

On Jan. 6, 1982, Barbara Jo Oberholtzer, 29, and Annette Kay Schnee, 21, went missing near Breckenridge. They were found dead in the area about six months apart, but their killer has remained a mystery for nearly 40 years.

During a press conference at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Lakewood on Wednesday, officials announced their belief that they have finally caught the perpetrator. Alan Lee Phillips, 70, of Dumont, was arrested Feb. 24 on two charges each of first-degree homicide, kidnapping and assault. Phillips is in custody at the Park County Jail.

– Sawyer D’Argonne, Summit Daily News


As job, housing and pay inequalities worsen, Coloradans say mantra to “build back stronger” rings hollow

To hear the leaders of state government tell it, Colorado has taken the beating of a lifetime from the coronavirus pandemic, but the state will emerge better for it. “Build back stronger” is the mantra both in the state legislature this year and was a theme of Gov. Jared Polis’ recent State of the State Address.

“Stronger,” in their view, means a more resilient and prosperous Colorado for all. But vulnerable people and their advocates find that slogan rings a bit hollow — that it’s hard to look ahead considering Colorado’s long-simmering inequalities in pay, employment, housing and hunger have expanded. Pick nearly any indicator, and it will show Colorado has become a less equal place.

While the state’s billionaires have recently gotten richer, surveys show half of parents can’t afford diapers. Hunger has soared. The unemployment rate among the lowest-paid Coloradans has been much higher than white-collar workers throughout the pandemic; state data showed that in October, those making under $27,000 were 88 times more likely to have lost a job than those making over $60,000.

Kenna Dickard coordinates aid for the poor and needy out of a Boulder nonprofit. Her caseload has doubled on many days in the pandemic, and the behavioral health specialist sees more people who need help to “just stay warm and alive.” In her experience, there isn’t enough money or food aid or housing to go around. She is giving up.

“No amount of time off is going to bring me back from the compassion fatigue, the secondary trauma of having to tell 200 people that what they need doesn’t exist anymore, that there’s not enough resources,” the 25-year-old Dickard said. “That’s hit so hard. Two weeks over Christmas isn’t going to fix it. And so I’m moving on.”

To finish reading, go to DenverPost.com.

Avalanche investigators testifying in criminal case could have “chilling effect,” warns Colorado AG

The March 25 avalanche deposited as much as 20 feet of debris on the Loop Road above the west portal of the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

Evan Hannibal happily handed over his helmet video of the avalanche that triggered below his snowboard and buried a service road above Interstate 70 last March.

He hoped the Colorado Avalanche Information Center would use the video and his first-person account to help educate other skiers and snowboarders. Maybe the lessons he learned from his close-up with an avalanche could help others avoid slides.

So when Summit County prosecutors used the video to anchor a criminal case and seek restitution for an avalanche mitigation device damaged in the March 25 slide, Hannibal argued that the charges could sway other backcountry travelers to stop sharing information with the avalanche center and its investigators.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, acting an attorney for the state’s avalanche center, last week agreed with Hannibal, arguing that Summit County’s plan to call avalanche center director Ethan Greene as an expert witness “could have an unintended adverse ‘chilling’ impact on the CAIC’s ability to gather important information.”

Weiser’s office filed motions to quash subpoenas issued by the Fifth Judicial District Attorney requiring Greene and avalanche center forecaster Jason Konisberg to testify as expert witnesses in the upcoming jury trial of Hannibal and his backcountry partner Tyler DeWitt.

Continue reading at ColoradoSun.com.

Mellowing COVID case rates have Grand preparing for Yellow

Citing reduced infection rates, Grand County officials have announced the county will move into the Yellow category on the state’s COVID-19 dial by Monday.

In a Friday night letter to the community, Grand County Public Health Director Abbie Baker explained that because Grand County has seen a steady decline in new cases since Feb. 18, the health department is asking people to prepare for lowered restrictions.

“Not only have we gone below the Red Level for the first time since October 2020, but we have also gone below Orange and have now been at Yellow levels for cases and positivity for seven days,” Baker wrote. “This is the result of all of you doing your part to keep our county safe and our businesses open. We are moving to Yellow dial level restrictions!”

The county was required to have seven days of consistent metrics at a given dial level before making any adjustments and Grand has met that requirement, Baker added.

To give local businesses time to prepare for additional capacities and communities time to work on messaging, the move to Yellow will go into effect by 12:01 a.m. Monday, according to Baker’s letter.

“We have done a lot of work to get where we are with the COVID-19 spread,” she wrote. “We have to move into Yellow with the understanding that spring break tourism is coming. We need to be smart so that we don’t experience a surge in resident cases in the aftermath that can have further impacts on our schools and businesses.”

The letter says an increase in cases would affect the county’s ability to administer vaccines, and indoor and outdoor events, regardless of size and venue, are still required to submit plans for approval.

Regarding the vaccine, the county’s clinics and health care providers began vaccinating people included in phase 1B.3 of the rollout on Friday. The county will begin vaccinating people in the 1B.3 group, in addition to the continuing vaccination of 1A, 1B.1, and 1B.2, as supplies allow.

According to Grand County Public Health, the state has split what was previously known as phase 1B.3 into two phases and put restaurant workers in a new phase, 1B.4.

The vaccine supply continues to be limited, but the county health department is hopeful that shipments will increase at the beginning of April.

“We understand that many people are eager to get their vaccine as soon as possible, and we, too, want that to happen,” the county health department wrote in a Friday night vaccine update. “We are confident that everyone in the community who wants a vaccine will be able to get one; we just ask for your patience while we work quickly and diligently to reach that goal.”

More Info

Upcoming vaccine rollout phases

Phase 1.B.3

(Began March 5)

• People age 60 and older.

• Frontline essential workers in grocery and agriculture.

• People 16-59 with 2 or more documented high risk conditions.

New phase 1.B.4

(Beginning later in March)

• People age 50 and older.

• Higher education

• Frontline essential workers in food/restaurant services, manufacturing, US postal service, public transit and specialized transportation, public health, and human service workers

• Faith leaders

• Frontline essential direct care providers for Coloradans experiencing homelessness

• Frontline essential journalists

• Continuity of local government

• Continuation of operations for state government

• Adults who received a placebo during a COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial

• People 16-49 with one documented higher risk condition

Phase 2

(Timing Dependent on Supply)

Phase 2 replaces what used to be Phase 3. This phase includes the general public or any Coloradan who is not included in earlier phases because they have lower risk of exposure or are less likely to have severe outcomes from COVID-19. This phase may be further segmented by age if needed.

Antigen Testing Update

Grand County Public Health’s free antigen testing program is still operational and testing at sites in Fraser, Granby, Grand Lake, Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling one to two times at each location per week. While attendance numbers have dropped slightly in the last week, GCPH intends to continue the program through at least the end of March and maybe longer if demand persists. The schedule for antigen testing can be found at Grand County COVID-19 Testing Information. As a reminder, the antigen testing sites are open to everyone, are free-of-charge, and no appointments are necessary. Please note that testing at the Kremmling location on March 25 and March 27 is hereby canceled unless an alternative site is determined. Please continue to check the link above for updates.


As alluded to a couple weeks ago, Grand County is getting very close to initiating our GrandStar Program (the local variation of Colorado’s 5-star Certified Business Variance Program). Through a rigorous certification and inspection process, the GrandStar Program will allow certain businesses in Grand County to operate at greater capacities than the currently designated COVID Dial allows. The GrandStar program will initially be open to restaurants and recreation centers countywide, but the intent is to include additional business sectors (like indoor events) in the future. Restaurants and recreation facilities throughout the county are encouraged to check out the GrandStar website at www.playwinterpark.com/grandstar to learn more about the program and complete the application if interested.

Source: Grand County Public Health

Staffing woes haunt Grand County

Grand County’s four dispatchers are working 12 hour shifts alone.

During their shift, they answer all 911 and nonemergency calls at the 24-hour agency while simultaneously managing conversations across fire departments, emergency medical services, US Forest Service, search and rescue, and more. The lone dispatcher often goes without breaks, even if they’ve just addressed an intense call.

At the jail, the only officer on the floor sometimes waits 10-15 minutes to get back up if there’s a scuffle with an inmate. More than 20% of the positions in the 60-person sheriff’s office are currently vacant and it’s hurting services in the county.

“Tonight, there’s going to be two deputies covering 1,850 square miles,” Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin told county commissioners during a conversation about staffing on Tuesday. “As soon as those deputies get tied up, that’s why the undersheriff and lieutenants and I are working over 100 hours a week — because we have to come out and handle all those other calls that come in.”

Grand County Clerk Sara Rosene, who has three vacancies in her 12-person department, reminded commissioners about her decision to reduce certain services at the clerk’s office.

“I’ve had some citizens say to me, ‘I pay taxes. I should be able to get driver’s license services in Grand County,’” Rosene said. “I agree with that. I don’t have the people to do it.”

For road and bridge, the 42-person department is short 11 people, and a week of heavy snow could mean having to prioritize what roads the county plows.

“We’re very fortunate we haven’t had the back to back snow days (where) staff doesn’t get a break between storms, because we wouldn’t be able to plow all the roads,” acting County Manager Ed Moyer said. “We have too many roads to be able to plow them.”

Staffing is reaching a critical level at departments across the county. County employees are feeling burnt out from the extra hours spent covering vital positions, which can be dangerous in emergency responses.

“People are to the point where they’re exhausted from overtime,” Schroetlin said. “It’s affecting families. It’s affecting kids. It ultimately affects — if I have people working seven days a week — it ultimately affects the decisions that they can make.”

Schroetlin pleaded with county commissioners Tuesday to allow him to adjust how he uses the sheriff’s office personnel budget without increasing the total. But the change could have far reaching effects for the county budget as a whole.

The sheriff’s request would allow him to determine how the personnel budget is spent, allowing him to adjust hiring incentives, shift differentials, wage adjustments and training steps. The hope would be to start making wages comparable to other counties that tend to pull away newer recruits.

“I’d rather have 10 quality positions that are filled, and know that I have those, than 15 that keep flopping back and forth,” Schroetlin said.

However, hearing the proposal for the first time Tuesday, Commissioner Kris Manguso expressed her hesitancy to allow the change, pointing out that other departments would likely want to follow suit. She did not come out against the proposal, but declined to make an immediate decision.

Commissioner Rich Cimino expressed similar reservations with only Commissioner Merrit Linke showing immediate support for the idea.

“What we’ve been doing isn’t working, so why should we keep doing it?” Linke said. “Even if all the other elected officials come to us with this, if it’s the same amount of money and it gets the job done, I’m supportive of this idea — give it a try because what we’re doing is not working.”

At more than $20 million, personnel costs make up 46% of expenses in the county’s budget. According to Moyer, if vacancies continue at the current pace, the county would not spend $2.5 million of that by the end of the year.

Cimino floated the idea that maybe a portion of those dollars could go back to departments to be used creatively, but further discussions would be needed. Manguso also pointed out that money alone might not fix the problem.

The county’s difficulties to staff essential services reflect a crisis felt by employers across the county. Many people agree the problem is rooted in the cost of living in Grand County, which has only gotten worse for prospective home buyers since the pandemic and East Troublesome Fire.

“Housing is an issue and we do understand that,” Manguso said. “You can pay somebody whatever, but if they can’t find a place to live, it doesn’t matter how much money you got.”

The Grand County Board of Realtors’ multi-list service currently has just 43 single-family homes available for sale countywide. Of those, only 14 are priced at less than $1 million.

While these numbers don’t reflect homes outside the list service, condos, townhomes or mobile homes, the dearth of affordable properties for a family looking to purchase is more than apparent. Higher wages might not be enough to bring and keep people in these essential positions.

“I know it’s not about the money, but I have to start somewhere with it,” Schroetlin said. “Otherwise we just waste the money.”

Grand County Undersheriff Wayne Schafer emphasized the fact that even within the county, wages at the sheriff’s office are not competitive enough. Positions at grocery and convenience stores are seeing comparable wages, and those jobs come without the hazards and challenging schedule of police work.

“If we could just compete locally, with just the people we already have in our community — they already live here,” Schafer said. “They could get a job with great benefits. They could do something great for their community. I believe that we have people in this community that could come work for this team — in all of these places — if we were just comparable at least locally.”

Still, any sort of adjustment for the sheriff’s office could have ramifications across the entire county. Also, additional benefits given to new hires would need to be considered for the loyal employees who have stuck around despite the challenges.

Manguso referenced this “domino effect” in her desire to think the move through.

“Everybody needs new buildings too, and everybody needs new vehicles,” Manguso said. “Where are we going to get all this money?”

Linke felt the sheriff’s urgency highlighted the need to move quickly. Additionally, any changes could be re-evaluated later this year come budgeting.

“We got spring break season coming up. We got summer coming up,” Linke said. “Every day that goes by, there’s a position vacant.”

The commissioners asked the sheriff to come back with a more specific request in a week or two that could solve the immediate issue. Schroetlin was agreeable, but also made a plea to residents about the reality of the situation for his and other departments.

“When our citizens call and ask, ‘Why is it taking so long to get our road plowed? Why is it taking so long for a deputy to get there?’ We’re trying,” Schroetlin said. “… At our staffing levels, we don’t have the people to respond.”

Guest column — District attorney: Judicial system fails when pretrial bonds are based on wealth, not risk

For several years now, the topic of pretrial detention versus bond for people charged with crimes has been the subject of legislative and policy debates. It also recently surfaced in northwest Colorado with a couple of very disturbing events, and it is currently under debate in our state legislature. For those reasons, as your elected district attorney, I feel it is important to speak on the topic.

First, this office has and will continue to routinely oppose personal recognizance bonds for things like repeat domestic violence offenders and many other types of high-risk persons. However, without major changes in Colorado’s pretrial release laws, I believe we will continue to see repeat or high risk offenders released without supervision because our current system focuses on wealth rather than risk, and locally we lack any supervision resources.

The crux of the issue is this question: In the American justice system, when can a person accused of a crime be held in jail while their case is prosecuted?

In the United States all people accused of crime are presumed innocent. In this way, there is inherent systemic friction between pretrial detention and the presumption of innocence. The purpose of pretrial detention, and by extension the purpose of a bond, is therefore not to punish someone, but to “ensure” that (1) the person appears in court as instructed by the judge, and (2) the community is safe. In Colorado, statutes dictate when and how a person can be jailed despite the presumption of innocence. The entire system is based on the concept of posting money to get out of jail, which means that Colorado has a monetary-based pretrial release system.

In addition to being monetary based, our current bond statute grants an absolute right to bond except in very limited circumstances, and it requires that any bond order from a judge involve the “least restrictive conditions” sufficient to ensure safety and avoid flight. Here in our rural jurisdiction with a limited tax base and no funding from the state, this translates to two options for our judges: Hold them in jail by setting an unaffordable bond as the price of freedom, or release them on their promise to behave. Our jurisdiction does not have pretrial supervision services to monitor people on bond, so for all of our judges in all our cases, it is an all-or-nothing question — people are held in jail on a bond they cannot afford, or they are released unsupervised.

In my assessment, a monetary based system, which makes wealth the determining factor on whether someone gets out or stays in jail, has produced a variety of bad outcomes across the country. People without money have remained in jail when a similar defendant with money gets out, and people with money have gotten out despite real flight risk or risk to community safety.

To be clear, the only place to solve this problem is at the legislature. Although a judge ultimately makes all decisions regarding bond and pretrial release, judges are not free to do as they please because they are limited by constitution, and the statutory tools the legislature provides. In the absence of a new set of laws from our legislature, one that prioritizes public safety and balances that not against wealth but with the constitutional principles of due process and the presumption of innocence, there are simply no good options on the question of pretrial detention. Freedom or jail depends first on how much money someone has because that is what our laws mandate, which is difficult to square with of one of this country’s core values, equal treatment under the law.

In the past several years, legislative proposals to address these problems have focused on making it harder to hold someone prior to conviction by limiting a judge’s ability to do so, but the monetary bond system remains in place. In this legislative session, those efforts are found in SB21-062. Thanks to the work of the Colorado District Attorney’s Council and others, the most problematic parts of the bill were withdrawn and in its current state, I am basically neutral about it, but that said, bond reform legislation leaves much to be desired as long as it retains the monetary-based system and lacks meaningful support for supervision services. As long as wealth is the determining factor on whether someone is at liberty or held in jail prior to any conviction, it will remain difficult to hold people who need to be held because the mandated system turns not on risk but wealth, which has no place in the effort to balance liberty and safety.

Until we discard our monetary bond system, and adopt a well-engineered ‘preventative detention’ model coupled with effective pretrial release supervision services, hitting the right balance between safety and liberty is going to be difficult at best. In the meantime, a strong systemic pushback against releasing the rich and jailing the poor has resulted in a trend across the country and state toward personal recognizance bonds, which means people simply sign their name and are released upon their promise to follow the rules. The end result is that currently, we still have the one thing most everyone agrees is a bad idea, which is a monetary based bond system, and at the same time real-world considerations such as public and victim safety, community quality of life and what to do when someone habitually fails to attend court hearings are not being adequately addressed. The results can be catastrophic.

Under a preventative detention model, an analysis is made to determine actual current risk for flight or risk to public/victim safety, and based on that assessment, a judge will order someone released without paying any money, or held in jail, period. Money and wealth are taken out of the equation and instead the entire question is addressed from the standpoint of balancing public safety with individual liberty on the facts of each individual case. In a well-built system that includes supervision services and regular judicial review of detention cases to ensure people are not detained too long for no good reason, only the dangerous are held, and the rest are released regardless of wealth, with supervision as appropriate. Based on the nature of crime in our judicial district, and the thoughtful nature of our judges, I am confident such a system would result locally in the vast majority of people charged with crimes being appropriately released with conditions on their behavior and appropriate supervision, and a small number of high risk offenders being detained out of public/victim safety necessity.

The legislature’s comfort with a monetary-based system, as opposed to preventative detention and pretrial release supervision, is a bit of mystery to me, but partisan politics and budgetary concerns appear to play a part. Funding is always difficult, but as the criminal justice system is a state system, one would think a state legislature about to pass SB21-062 would prioritize at least some effective funding for pretrial release supervision programs in rural communities, but so far, and for the next year, it does not look like that will happen.

Balancing public safety and individual freedom is complicated. As attractive as social-media “solutions” can be, and as intriguing as oversimplified click-bait media coverage of these complex issues is, the reality is that criminal justice in a society founded on individual liberty requires an unyielding effort toward pragmatic and effective balance. Partisan politics has zero place in that process. Many if not all of my fellow DA’s in Colorado support numerous criminal justice reforms, but to be effective and safe, such changes must be funded properly at all levels — state and local — so that resources to change the system responsibly are prioritized. Although absent in Colorado’s 2021 version of “bond reform” legislation, I am hopeful that in the years to come we will achieve a functional pretrial release model that keeps us safe while at the same time, avoids wealth-based bias and stays true to the freedoms we cherish in our constitutional democracy.

Matt Karzen is the 14th Judicial District Attorney covering Grand, Routt and Moffat counties.

Matt Karzen

Byers Canyon Bridge added to list of endangered bridges

Byers Canyon Bridge along US Highway 40 in Grand County has been included in a list of the 46 most endangered bridges in the state. The listing highlights the bridge’s unique and well-preserved continuous steel box girder.
Courtesy CDOT

A bridge in Grand County is being included on the list of the state’s 46 most endangered bridges.

In collaboration with Colorado Preservation Inc., the Colorado Department of Transportation is undertaking an effort to recognize historic highway bridges around the state. The structures represent different designs and eras in bridge-building determined to be in the best physical condition.

The Byers Canyon Bridge along US Highway 40 in Grand was included in the list for its continuous steel box girder.

Although being recognized as a Most Endangered Place is usually a call to action for preservation, CDOT officials explained that in this instant the listed bridges are in good physical condition. The nomination is meant to build statewide awareness and advocacy for highway bridges as historic properties while highlighting these structures as prime candidates for rehabilitation if and when futures repairs are needed.

View all 46 bridges at www.codot.gov/news/2021/februrary-2021/assets/most-endangered-bridges.

Overnight permits at Rocky open Monday following technical difficulties

After experiencing technical difficulties Monday, Rocky Mountain National Park has revised this year’s overnight backpacking permit system.

To ensure a smooth payment experience and in an attempt to prevent an overload to the system, the sign up and processing for wilderness overnight backpacking permits will be divided over seven days.

The new schedule is as follows:

• For May or June overnight backpacking permits, registration begins 8 a.m. Monday.

• For July overnight backpacking permits, registration begins 8 a.m. Wednesday.

• For August overnight backpacking permits, registration begins 8 a.m. March 12.

• For September or October overnight backpacking permits, registration begins 8 a.m. March 14.

This information as well as the link for wilderness overnight backpacking permit reservations at those dates and times can be found at www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping.htm.