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2 Colo. officers could return to work, receive 10 years of back pay

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Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post

 

DENVER — Two Denver police officers fired more than a decade ago for beating a man will get their jobs back and the city could pay them tens of thousands of dollars in back pay after a decision Monday by the Colorado Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court decided that it wouldn’t take the case, leaving in place a previous ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals in favor of the officers. The appeals court ruled last year that the Denver Department of Safety did not have the authority at the time to rescind a previous, less-punitive disciplinary order and instead fire the two officers, Devin Sparks and Randy Murr.

“The Supreme Court is not going to take up the case,” said Ryan Luby, spokesman for the Denver City Attorney’s Office. “As for what that means, we’re still working that out.”

Luby said he didn’t know how much money in back pay they would be owed. An attorney with the city’s office previously told The Denver Post that the amount would be 10 years worth of the officers’ salary, minus the money they earned or could have earned in that time.

Sean Olson, the officers’ attorney, said he didn’t know either how much Sparks and Murr are owed because it’s a complicated calculation. He said it would be fair to assume they are each owed tens of thousands of dollars. Both officers intend to rejoin the department, he said.

“As far as I know, that’s the plan,” Olson said.

The two officers were first fined and suspended for three days after beating a man, Michael DeHerrera, during an arrest outside Lower Downtown bars in April 2009.

Ron Perea, the safety manager at the time, rescinded the suspensions a month later and instead fired the officers because they were caught lying about the incident. The officers had said that DeHerrera tried to punch them and that they had to hit him to defend themselves, but video footage published by a local television station showed that wasn’t true.

The 2010 firing triggered more than a decade of legal battles between the officers and the city. Sparks and Murr were briefly reinstated and then fired again. The two officers appealed the second firing to the city’s Civil Service Commission and the Denver District Court, which both found the discipline appropriate and legal.

The officers then appealed the issue to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which found in their favor based on technicalities in the city charter. The court found that the manager of safety could not change his first decision to suspend them after his order was made final and the time for appealing the decision had passed.

“We are acutely aware that this result means that the officers essentially escape the consequences of their conduct, a result that is directly contrary to what the facts compel,” the court’s ruling states. “But agencies and courts must employ just and proper procedures to obtain just and equitable results.”

The city attorney’s office then appealed that decision to the Colorado Supreme Court. The city’s petition to the state’s highest court alleges that the court of appeals misunderstood the applicable laws and erred in its decision. The petition was the first time since at least 2007 that the city has appealed a disciplinary decision to the state Supreme Court.

Olson, the officers’ attorney, argued in a filing against the city’s petition that the Supreme Court’s review was unnecessary.

On Monday, the Supreme Court denied the city’s request in a one-sentence order. The justices did not explain why they didn’t take the case.

“I think everybody on this end is pleased to see it come to an end finally,” Olson said. “There’s no other road to travel on as far as the legal side of things is concerned.”

But DeHerrera’s family is crestfallen by the court’s decision not to take the case they’ve been involved in for 10 years.

“It’s like being punched in the gut another time,” said Anthony DeHerrera, Michael DeHerrera’s father who is a patrol deputy for the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office. He said he never gave up on the fight because he knew his son was innocent.

Attorneys for both sides will now begin negotiations as to what’s next for the officers. Both Sparks and Murr still live in the Denver area, Olson said.