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Aurora police officer who allegedly killed teen had prior illegal search

The Aurora police officer who the department’s chief says fatally shot 14-year-old Jor’Dell Richardson was involved in a 2018 search of two people sitting in their car outside a condo complex that a federal judge found violated the passengers’ Fourth Amendment rights.

That’s according to a lawsuit against Roch Gruszeczka, two other officers and the city of Aurora filed three years ago. The judge decided that evidence of a gun the man had illegally because of a felony record couldn’t be admitted i na criminal case filed against him because the search was illegal.

Gruszeczka, a member of the Aurora Police Department’s gang unit who has worked for the department since 2017, fatally shot Richardson on June 1 after his partner tackled him when Richardson ran away from a convenience store near East 8th Avenue and Dayton Street, according to police. A sergeant on patrol had noticed a group of teenagers wearing hoodies and medical masks and asked for backup. Gruszeczka and James Snapp responded. The officers radioed the kids may have been “casing” or “scoping” stores in the area.

Richardson had a gun on him that Interim Chief Art Acevedo confirmed was a pellet gun, not a handgun, but look strikingly similar.

Gruszeczka shot Richardson after a brief struggle on the ground with him and his partner James Snapp. Body-worn camera footage captured Richardson shouting “Stop! You got me!” at nearly the same time Officer Gruszecza yelled for him to “let go of the gun.”

It’s unclear from the video footage where Richardson’s hands were at the time of the struggle, though it was under his white hoodie during the chase.

An attorney for his family claims no evidence shows Richardson touching the gun during the struggle.

The teens had allegedly just robbed the convenience store. The civil rights attorney for Richardson’s family has voiced doubts that the officers had reasonable suspicion to pursue him based on the information they had at the time. The body-worn camera footage shows Richardson sprinting away when Snapp’s patrol car pulls up. The officers can be heard yelling at Richardson to stop.

Siddhartha Rathod, a partner at Rathod Mohamedbhai, claimed the officers did not know he had allegedly threatened the convenience store clerk with the pellet gun and robbed the store when they pursued him.

Rathod has now pointed to a previous lawsuit against Gruszeczka as evidence that the officer has a pattern of violating people’s rights.

Tevon Thomas sued Gruszeczka, officers Jonathan Fullam and Cassie Longnecker and the city of Aurora in 2020 after they contacted him and a friend who had given Thomas a ride home around 3 a.m. on Nov. 10, 2018 to the condominium complex where Thomas lived with his mother. The two friends, who are both Black, sat in their car talking for more an hour, and a woman who lived in the complex called 911 and asked officers to walk her to the building when she returned home around 4 a.m.

She said her parents had told her to call the police to ask if an officer could escort her into the building. The caller said she wasn’t sure she needed that, but she didn’t think the car “belonged there” and two holes in one side of the car she believed were bullet holes scared her.

The police officers then parked near Thomas and his friend’s car. Gruszeczka began questioning them about where they lived and asked for their IDs. He ordered them to get out of the car. Fullam saw the handle of a pistol in Thomas’ pocket, according to the lawsuit, and Longnecker told Thomas to get on the ground. Thomas was arrested.

But in June 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Moore found the three officers did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause for their search of Thomas, ruling the search a violation of his Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Moore threw out all evidence gotten as a result of the search.

Aurora settled Thomas’ civil lawsuit for $100,000 earlier this year, according to Sentinel Colorado.

Rathod said case law makes clear that what’s found in a search can’t be used to justify the search.

“You can’t say, the argument is, ‘We were right, so the Constitution doesn’t matter.’ The Supreme Court says no, that’s not the standard. The question is, did you have reasonable, articulable suspicion to do the stop?”

A spokesperson for the Aurora Police Department previously told the Colorado Sun the officers had reasonable suspicion of a crime being committed to justify pursuing Richardson. Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause for believing a person has committed a crime.

Bruce Brown is a former district attorney for Colorado’s 5th Judicial District covering Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit Counties. He said he believes the analysis of whether Gruszeczka fatally shooting Richardson warrants criminal charges against him will actually turn on the reasonableness of the force Gruszeczka used rather than reasonable suspicion for the pursuit.

“The idea of charging the officer, I think, is going to be driven not by whether or not he had reasonable suspicion, but whether the use of force was justified based upon what had happened before,” he said.

An independent Critical Incident Response Team is investigating the Richardson shooting and Gruszeczka remains on leave.

Brown added that whatever information Gruszeczka had from the patrol sergeant when he pursued Richardson helps form the understanding of Gruszeczka’s state of mind at the time.

“As long as the officers who used the force had been given information either by a fellow officer or through a dispatcher from a citizen, they can rely on the information given. And if it went out as a as a robbery, that infers that some use of force occurred — meaning in order to complete the theft — that is going to heighten the level of force that the officer is justified in using in order to apprehend.”

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