The Denver Post
A Colorado sheriff’s lieutenant with multiple criminal convictions slammed an unarmed man to the ground and fired a Taser at his face for watching a traffic stop.
Kenneth Espinoza on Tuesday sued Lt. Henry Trujillo and other members of the Las Animas County Sheriff’s Office, alleging deputies acted excessively violent toward him even though he wasn’t suspected of a crime when they contacted him and he tried to comply with their orders.
“There was no real or apparent threat to the officers,” the lawsuit states. “Both defendants escalated and caused this situation, acted violently and unlawfully, and then wrote minimized and falsified statements as to what occurred during the encounter with Mr. Espinoza.”
The Nov. 29 incident brought to light Trujillo’s criminal history and the five civil protection orders requested against him. Trujillo has worked at the southern Colorado sheriff’s office intermittently since 2001 and is the third in command at the agency.
The incident began when Deputy Mikhail Noel stopped Espinoza’s son for following him too closely. Espinoza had been following his son because they were going to the same place and stopped when his son was pulled over, the federal lawsuit states.
Trujillo approached Espinoza as he sat in his car and told him to leave.
“I don’t need to do anything, I’m on a public street,” Espinoza said, body camera footage of the incident shows.
After Noel joined the two men, Trujillo walked away and Espinoza put his truck into reverse to drive away. Both deputies started yelling at him to stop and to get out of the truck. Espinoza stopped the truck and the deputies grabbed his arm through the driver’s window, pulling it backward while simultaneously telling him to get out of the car, the lawsuit states.
“Don’t pull away from me, you’re going to get lit up,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo pulled Espinoza from the truck and told him he was under arrest, to which Espinoza said “OK,” that he was going peacefully and asked the deputies to “settle down.”
“You do what you’re told, OK?” Trujillo said.
The deputies walked Espinoza to a police SUV and told him to get inside, but Espinoza said he couldn’t because the deputies were grabbing at him. Trujillo then shot Espinoza with a Taser cartridge, striking him in the face and chest before slamming the door on Espinoza’s leg.
Trujillo re-opened the door and told Espinoza to step out so they could find his identification. When Espinoza didn’t immediately comply, Trujillo and other officers ripped him from the car and onto the snow-covered ground.
“Jesus, I thought you guys were (expletive) good, man,” Espinoza said as four deputies surrounded him and shoved him against the police SUV to pat him down.
Espinoza faced several charges in connection to the incident, but prosecutors later dropped all the charges. The arrest cost him financially and mentally, the lawsuit states. He paid a retainer for a defense attorney, to have his truck released from impound and repaired and to bond out of jail. He spent a day in jail and is still undergoing therapy.
Trujillo has been convicted of several criminal charges between 1997 and 2009 in Las Animas County, including displaying a weapon, harassment and fighting in public.
He was also the subject of several restraining orders. One of the applications for a civil protection order alleged Trujillo threatened to shoot a man he was arresting. Another from a former romantic partner alleged he refused to let her leave the house or use the phone after she tried to break up with him.
Trujillo worked for the Las Animas County Sheriff’s Office in four stints: 2001-2002, 2005-2009, 2010-2016, 2017-present. He left in 2002 to work for Trinidad police and resigned the other two times he departed, according to the lawsuit.
Other documents allege Trujillo pursued his own brother in a car chase for erratic driving and pulled him from the car. His brother is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair, court documents show.
Twelve days before arresting Espinoza, the county settled a different federal lawsuit alleging Trujillo and Noel used excessive force when they forcibly arrested a deaf woman in a hospital, where she was recovering from a suicide attempt. The deputies had been called to the hospital not for an alleged crime but to transport her to treatment.
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