DENVER — Denver City Council approved a $4.72 million settlement on Monday between the City and County of Denver and Black Lives Matter protesters in connection with the protests of May and June 2020.
The plaintiff class, which involved multiple people who had been arrested during the protests, and the defendant, the City and County of Denver, agreed that the multi-million-dollar settlement would fully and forever release the Denver from any liabilities, claims or other damage in connection with a class action lawsuit, which began with hundreds of arrests by the Denver Police Department (DPD) between May 30 and June 5, 2020.
Denver City Council took up the resolution and approved it on Monday.
During that week in 2020, more than 300 people were arrested under Denver's emergency nighttime curfew — which prohibited being in Denver's public spaces after sunset and overnight from May 30 through June 5, with few exceptions — while they protested the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people, according to the civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy, which represents the plaintiffs.
As written in the emergency curfew document, which former Mayor Michael Hancock issued on May 30, "In the aftermath of Mr. Floyd's death, a civil disturbance has occurred within the downtown and surrounding areas of the City and County of Denver, with resulting significant and extensive damage to people and/or property, including several public and private businesses and buildings that have been damaged, looted or burned."
On June 10, the City Attorney's Office said it would dismiss all cases against individuals who were arrested for curfew violations during the protests, as long as they were not charged with additional crimes.
In total, charges were dismissed for 320 protesters.
However, protesters said amid a spike in the COVID-19 pandemic, they were brought to the detention center, where some stayed for up to two days, though others were kept longer. According to the settlement, some detainees lacked medical care for injuries or prior conditions and some were almost fired for missing work.
The arrested individuals said the nighttime curfew was "enforced exclusively against BLM protesters, violating their civil rights to free speech and assembly under the First Amendment and the right to Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment," the settlement reads.
Plaintiffs Kelsey Taylor and Claire Sannier filed a complaint on July 1, 2020 on behalf of themselves and others to claim that their First, Fourth and 14th Amendments had been violated. All of the plaintiffs involved in the subsequent lawsuit had been arrested for violating the emergency curfew between May 30 and June 5, 2020 and were detained for a period of time and all their charges were ultimately dismissed, according to the settlement. Taylor and Sannier were named class representatives.
The Denver Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM) announced on June 11 it had accepted an unanimous call from Denver City Council to investigate DPD’s approach to the demonstrations. By the end of the year, the OIM had found DPD was ill-equipped to handle the size of the protest and officers failed to follow the department's policies.
The protesters' lawsuit — Fitouri, et al. v. City and County of Denver — was consolidated with Epps, et al. v. City and County of Denver on Aug. 4, 2020. The 85-page document is available online here. Just ahead of this, officials said the protests cost the city and private businesses at least $5.5 million in damages and overtime costs.
A trial was set to begin on April 24, 2023 for the claims related to curfew, but as that date neared, both parties decided to restart communications about a settlement. In March, they began working with a mediator and on April 13, the parties finalized material terms of the class relief, according to the settlement.
The document reads that the plaintiffs felt confident they would have succeeded at trial, but recognized the benefits of not taking the case to what would have likely been a risky and complex jury trial. In addition, the defendant — the City and County of Denver — denied any liability and wrongdoing, particularly in connection with the claims it had an "official policy or practice of targeting curfew enforcement at individuals engaged in First Amendment activity," the settlement reads. The city and county also recognized that a trial would be "burdensome and expensive" and it would be "desirable and beneficial to fully and finally settle and terminate the claims of the Class in the manner and upon the terms and conditions set forth in this Agreement," the document continues.
The agreed upon settlement payment is $4,720,000. This includes individual settlement payments, court-approved fees incurred by the plaintiff class and settlement administration expenses, according to the document. The individual settlements were broken up by categories, based on how long an individual was detained, with those detained beyond two days receiving the largest shares.
The settlement was signed by both parties, class counsel and the defendant's counsel prior to the approval by Denver City Council.
Elizabeth Wang, with Loevy & Loevy, has been the lead attorney for the protesters and said the U.S. Constitution does not allow police to clear the streets of protesters simply because they do not agree with their message.
“In addition to compensation to protesters, the settlement prevents the City from enacting any curfew enforced against those engaged in protest activity in the future," she continued. "This is a win that will protect free speech in Denver for the years to come.”
Sannier, one of the class representatives for the lawsuit, said in a statement that Denver militarized its police force to unlawfully arrest more than 300 people.
“The City has agreed to pay for this one instance of violent suppression of free speech, while they continue to brutalize and imprison people every day," she said. "Our message is that Black Lives Matter is as necessary now as it was in 2020.”
Previously, a federal judge denied Denver city attorneys’ request for a new trial and a significantly lower penalty in a civil case in which a jury awarded protesters $14 million after police injured them while they peacefully demonstrated during the 2020 racial justice demonstrations. In addition, Denver City Council voted in mid-March 2023 to approve a $1.6 million payout to settle a lawsuit filed by seven protesters who said their civil rights were violated by Denver police during the summer of 2020 demonstrations.