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10th Circuit finds officer acted unreasonably by shooting Lakewood man in darkness

Lakewood police called a man six times asking him to come outside — yet they refused to show themselves when he peered out twice in the darkness. The man, fearing he was being set up for an attack, then grabbed his shotgun and exited.

That is when an officer shot him in the leg.

On Friday, the federal appeals court based in Denver reinstated the lawsuit of Eric St. George against the city of Lakewood and Agent Devon Trimmer after a lower court dismissed the case. A majority of the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit determined, under the totality of the circumstances during that night in Lakewood, Trimmer had not acted reasonably when she shot St. George.

“I’m just trying to figure out what were they doing,” said Judge Gregory A. Phillips of the officers during oral arguments. “It seems like their conduct was not typical police behavior and will end up in this exact same result more often than not, which is a citizen is shot when he didn’t need to be.”

Matthew Cron, a civil rights attorney with the Denver firm Rathod Mohamedbhai, said after reading the decision that what happened to St. George was a “textbook case of what constitutes terrible policing.”

“What was Mr. St. George supposed to do in this situation?” he asked. “Just trust that these people hiding in the shadows and were refusing to identify themselves are law enforcement who only have law abiding intentions? No rational person would have that trust.”

According to St. George’s federal lawsuit claiming excessive force, he arranged for a female escort to meet him at his Lakewood home on July 31, 2016. A payment dispute arose, requiring St. George to speak with her agency. Thirty minutes later, the escort reportedly said she was leaving, prompting another payment dispute.

St. George grabbed his handgun and went after her. She allegedly brandished mace and he reportedly raised his gun and fired a warning shot in the air. The escort fled the scene, called 9-1-1, and reported St. George had made unlawful sexual contact and fired a shot at her. Police, including Trimmer, responded to the apartment complex and found no bullet casings, nor anyone who heard a gunshot. They decided they lacked probable cause for an arrest warrant.

Meanwhile, St. George had gone out to dinner and was sitting at his computer drinking a glass of wine. The officers reportedly called St. George six times over 15 minutes, beginning just after midnight. Each call was from a blocked number, and St. George thought the lack of caller identification meant it was a prank caller or telemarketer.

On the second call, St. George reportedly answered and a police agent identified himself and told St. George to exit the home. St. George reportedly opened his door, but did not see the hidden officers.

St. George answered the fourth call, and Sgt. Nathan Muller reportedly said his “friends” were watching St. George through his apartment windows. Muller allegedly learned that St. George did not believe he was speaking with actual police officers, and that he seemed “paranoid.”

After the fifth call, St. George exited and looked around using his cell phone as a light. The officers still remained hidden and did not announce their presence. After the sixth and final call, St. George told Muller, “you aren’t there.” St. George believed he was receiving calls from someone impersonating the police, and exited with a shotgun, pumping it and ejecting a live shell, which the officers heard.

After six minutes of standing outside with no sign of the police, St. George began to walk around his building toward where Trimmer was hidden. At one point, Trimmer fired at St. George, hitting him in the leg. He returned fire, but missed her.

Allegedly, it took sixteen minutes after Trimmer shot St. George until the officers identified themselves.

“We know that Agent Trimmer fired immediately after seeing him, but we know that she had six minutes from the time that he stepped out of his house and he fired his warning pump action,” argued Danielle Trujillo, a University of Colorado law student representing St. George, to the appellate panel. “She had six minutes at that time to identify herself and yet she still chose not to.”

Some of the judges on the panel voiced skepticism of the Lakewood police’s tactics.

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