The city of Trinidad has agreed to pay $775,000 to settle two federal lawsuits alleging police arrested innocent people on drug charges because they relied on wrong and misleading information from an unreliable confidential informant, lawyers said.
The ACLU of Colorado, which filed a lawsuit in January 2015 on behalf of two women, announced the terms of one settlement on Thursday. Danika Gonzales and Felicia Valdez “were wrongly arrested and prosecuted for crimes they did not commit in a reckless 2013 ‘drug sting,'” the ACLU said in a statement. Their criminal charges eventually were dropped, but both were fired from their jobs despite their innocence, the lawsuit had claimed. The city of Trinidad agreed to pay $375,000 to settle the suit filed on behalf of those two women.
Civil rights lawyer David Lane said the city of Trinidad has agreed to pay $400,000 to settle another lawsuit he filed on behalf of six other people who contended they were wrongly arrested in the case. The plaintiffs in that case were Raquel Garcia, Eric Gallegos, Joseph Romero, Marilyn Tyler, Vickie Vargas and Melissa Vialpando.
“In my entire career, I have never seen more shoddy police work than I saw in these particular cases,” Lane said Tuesday.
Gonzales lost her job as a probation officer, and Valdez lost her job with a Trinidad school. Valdez and her children also were evicted from their subsidized housing because of the arrest.
“A modicum of police work would have revealed that both of these plaintiffs were innocent of all the charges against them,” according to the lawsuit filed by the ACLU in U.S. District Court in Denver.
Trinidad City Attorney Les Downs could not be immediately reached for comment.
The lawsuits showed that 40 individuals were arrested on drug charges by Trinidad police in 2013. None of those arrests resulted in a drug-related conviction, and the arrests were discredited after concerns were raised about a confidential informant used by police.
The ACLU lawsuit claimed Trinidad Detectives Phil Martin and Arsenio Vigil fabricated details and used unchecked information from confidential informant Crystal Bachicha. According to the lawsuit, Vigil and Martin did not reveal that Gonzales was Bachicha’s former probation officer. They also did not disclose a long-standing feud between Bachicha and Valdez, according to the claim. The two detectives recently retired.
“Neither of those detectives had any idea about how to run a drug bust operation,” Lane said.
Trinidad police paid Bachicha $3,085 for providing information that led to arrests. Bachicha was convicted of perjury in November 2015.
The detectives also withheld from arrest affidavits information challenging Bachicha’s credibility, including her arrest for allegedly trying to obtain prescription drugs illegally while she was working as an informant, the lawsuit filed by the ACLU contended.
“Trinidad detectives allowed a devious snitch to frame our innocent clients for crimes they did not commit,” said Mark Silverstein, the legal director of the ACLU of Colorado. “With this settlement, our clients have been vindicated, and Trinidad detectives have received a clear message that the uncorroborated say-so of a shady snitch cannot justify destroying the careers and reputations of innocent members of the community.”
In court documents disputing the lawsuit filed by Lane, the city and detectives had contended that their actions “were taken in good faith and were reasonable under the circumstances.”
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