The Colorado Trial Lawyers Association picks one case per year which “acknowledges the positive impact that a single case can have on correcting injustices, advancing fairness under the law, changing attitudes or providing economic incentives to protect public safety.”
That’s the description of the CTLA’s Case of the Year Award, and the 2021 Case of the Year challenged how the Denver Police and other law enforcement agencies responded to the George Floyd protests last year and resulted in a temporary restraining order against the DPD — the same day that the case was filed.
The winning case, Agazi Abay et al. v. City of Denver, brought together a team of lawyers to represent four clients willing to challenge what they had witnessed as inappropriate use of force during the racial justice protests across Denver in May of 2020.
Witnesses reported that the police unleashed pepper balls and spray, rubber bullets, tear gas and flashbang grenades on protesters, the press and medics. Several were seriously injured, including a bystander who was blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet, and others reporting facial fractures.
The Denver Post reported last year that what started as a small and peaceful protest demanding justice for Floyd turned chaotic after gunshots were fired, sending demonstrators across the city as police used tear gas and pepper spray. And two officers of the DPD were eventually suspended for use of excessive force.
“The question became: Who monitors the police? Who polices the police?”
— Ross Ziev of Help in Colorado, the Law Offices of Ross Ziev
Ross Ziev of Help in Colorado, the Law Offices of Ross Ziev, was part of a team of attorneys that brought a class-action lawsuit against the City of Denver for use of excessive force and First Amendment violations. The attorneys representing the protesters also include Milo Schwab of Ascend Counsel, Laura Wolf and John Michael Guevara of Spark Justice Law and Jason Wesoky of Darling Milligan.
According to a video played at the dinner last night about each of the possible contenders for the award, the DPD was unprepared for the level of protests and requested assistance from multiple jurisdictions across the Metro without checking on the training or weapons of those offering assistance. In talking with dozens of protestors, and wanting to get videos to judges not seen in the media, a team of attorneys were brought together to file the case and then receiving a hearing for that night.
During the hearing, the judge was asking the DPD police commissioner what reasons officers had for some of their actions against protesters, according to the video. In research of the weapons used, it was discovered that many ways the police were using weapons were ways banned under the Geneva Convention.
However, the case’s impact is already being felt. Only a day after the suit was filed, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order limiting the DPD’s use of force, including its use of chemical agents and projectiles. “This order was quoted in different federal court orders around the country that also protected peaceful protests,” Ziev said. The language and terms of the TRO were also reflected in Colorado’s police reform bill.
Eventually, Denver and the plaintiffs reached an agreement on similar terms to continue restrictions on DPD’s use of chemical weapons and projectiles and require body camera recording of protests.
“I think everyone has a role to play in social justice,” Ziev said. “Protesters have a role to play. The attorneys have a role to play. And people within the department hopefully have a role to play as well … if they choose to do so.”
The award was announced at the CTLA’s annual dinner at the Denver Zoo, along with a host of other awards recognizing legislators, attorneys and others who the organization feels deserve recognition for their hard work.
The CTLA presented several other awards at the dinner, including awards to Legislative Honorees: Rep. Chris Kennedy and Sen. Julie Gonzales; the Access to Justice Award to Spencer Kontnik; the Consumer Protection Award to Susan Minamizono; Outstanding Service to the CTLA to Tim Garvey and Kylie Schmidt and Loren Brown and Jason Wesoky; the New Trial Lawyer of the Year Award to Jerry Bowman and Jennifer O’Connell; and the Kenneth Norman Kripke Lifetime Achievement Award to Stephen Wahlberg.
For more information on the other cases up for the CTLA Case of the Year Award, read this previous story from Reporter Jessica Folker.
Parts of this story were contributed by Law Week Reporter Jessica Folker.