Independent probe shows standard procedures violated in warrantless Longmont K-9 apartment searches

Posted at 5:34 PM, Dec 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-27 20:08:36-05

LONGMONT, Colo. – An independent investigation into the warrantless police K-9 searches done earlier this year at a Longmont subsidized housing unit found the two K-9 handlers and their superior violated standard procedures in getting consent to enter eight apartments.

The independent investigation was done by the Weld County Sheriff’s Office and was released Wednesday as part of a settlement between the city of Longmont and the ACLU of Colorado, which was announced mid-November.

Denver7 broke the story about allegations that Longmont officers and their K-9s had gone along with Longmont Housing Authority workers during a May inspection at The Suites, and entered people’s apartments without a warrant.

A resident, Ray Appling, reported that more inspections were planned in coming days, and worried that the form letters notifying residents of the planned inspections did not do enough to inform them that police K-9s would be used, or that they could refuse to let the officers inside.

The Longmont Police Department told Denver7 the housing authority’s request was in response to a rise in illegal drug activity and an overdose death at the complex. It eventually ended the program after media attention and expressed regret about what happened.

Two days later, the Longmont Police Department said in a statement: “It was incorrectly reported that the police were conducting illegal searches.” The department pointed to the letter from the Longmont Housing Authority regarding the K-9 searches.

Nearly two weeks after the initial report, the Weld County Sheriff’s Office released partial findings from the full report that was released Wednesday saying the warrantless searches were “not consistent” with department standards.

The full report shows that there were inconsistencies between the stories involving some of the officers, LHA staff, and some of the residents whose apartments were entered, but that the officers should have reasonably known that what they were doing was not in line with typical procedures.

“The lack of contemporaneous and specific reporting and/or recording of the K9 searches by residents, LHA Staff, and LPD members is specifically concerning, as it limits its accuracy, usefulness, and effects [sic] the credibility of the information,” the report says.

The report shows that then-LHA Director Krystal Winship-Erazo had first approached one of the K-9 officers, Michael Marquardt, in late 2016 about possibly working together, as some of the LHA’s properties had recently seen drug activity.

Some K-9 units had been used in a search at the Briarwood housing units, which are part of Boulder County’s probation services and have to allow police searches as per probation rules.

By April of this year, Marquardt had agreed with Erazo and the on-site manager at The Suites, Alma Collins, that the officers and their dogs would accompany LHA staffers at the monthly inspection of a handful of apartments.

Two of the apartments Erazo and Collins picked to be searched were inhabited by people the LHA suspected of selling or using drugs, according to the report.

Erazo, in multiple interviews done by investigators over the summer, said the searches were meant to show residents that the LHA cared about allegations of drug sales at the properties.

But her accounts and those of Collins, Marquardt, and another K-9 handler, Billy Sawyer, all differed on whether or not, and how, consent was obtained from residents for the officers to enter their apartments.

LHA maintained that it had given people proper notice for the inspections, and thus the searches, with Erazo saying she believed that the written notices constituted consent for the officers to enter.

The officers said they had agreed not to undertake any criminal investigations at the apartments they entered, even if their K-9s hit on drugs or if they saw drugs out in the open themselves.

Erazo claimed in interviews with investigators that the officers were aware that people at the apartments were giving consent for the officers to enter, though the report shows that at least two people either gave consent reluctantly, or claimed they were not home when Erazo and officers entered their apartments.

Further, the report says, neither Marquardt or Collins ever informed their superior, Sgt. Andy Feaster, that they were doing the searches. They both said they saw the searches as training opportunities for the dogs, and when they failed to file training reports for a month after the May searches—and after Denver7’s first two reports on the matter—said they didn’t believe the searches needed to be logged in their entirely because no drugs were seized.

The report says officers neither finished “detailed or adequately specific documentation” of the searches in a timely manner.

Still, the report found, the department’s code of conduct and Colorado law says that officers are to “use reasonable judgment” and “are not to take police action which they know, or should know, is not in accordance with the law.”

“The lack of detail and communications inconsistent with the seriousness of the alleged conduct, coupled with the observed lack of awareness by Officers Marquardt and Sawyer of the ramifications of the alleged conduct expose a concern of commitment to forthrightfullness [sic] that was not adequately address in this investigative action,” the report says.

But it found that Marquardt, Sawyer and Feaster violated the department's standard operating procedure because they failed to adequately supervise K-9 services, training and documentation. Marquardt and Sawyer also conducted at least three searches without a warrant or consent, the report found.

And the report finds that the officers should have known they might be violating the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment while conducting the searches.

“Any voluntary consent obtained was inconsistent with clearly established law, state statute, and best practices of law enforcement’s application of the 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure,” the report says.

However, it left any possible findings of civil rights violations up to a court to decide.

Longmont Police Chief Mike Butler told the Denver Post Wednesday that Marquardt will be suspended without pay for 30 hours, and Sawyer will be suspended without pay for 10 hours because of the violations.

The city of Longmont already settled its case involving four of the people whose homes were searched. The city agreed to pay $210,000 total for damages and attorneys’ fees and issued a statement acknowledging that some of those people never gave consent.

The city also agreed to get further input from the ACLU related to further police search policies and to host a public forum with residents at The Suites.

“I did not have any opportunity to stop a police officer and K-9 from coming into my home and searching it.  I felt violated, powerless and demeaned,” one of the residents, Alice Boatner, said at the time.

On Wednesday, the Longmont Department of Public Safety issued a statement along with the independent investigation apologizing for the incident and discussing what plans come next:

Longmont Department of Public Safety (LDPS) regrets playing a role in the search of apartments of the residents of The Suites on May 10, 2017. LDPS is working, and will continue to work, to ensure that its police officers conduct themselves in keeping with Longmont police policies and the Fourth Amendment.

The changes made by Longmont Police include:

  • Reiterating and continuing to clarify how and when canines are used.
  • Reinforcing and continuing the process for documenting how and when consent is obtained.
  • Reinforcing and continuing the need for communication with supervisors as outlined in department procedures.

City of Longmont officials have personally apologized to the residents involved in the settlement. City of Longmont officials have also invited the involved police officers and the affected residents at The Suites to participate in a restorative process to repair the harm, rebuild trust, and restore relationships. The City of Longmont, in partnership with the ACLU, will also facilitate a community forum to help our community rebuild trust.

The restorative process and the community forum are in the process of being scheduled.

Requests for comment made to the LHA Wednesday have so far not been returned. Neither Erazo nor Collins are listed as employees on the company’s website any longer.