LOVELAND, Colo. — The City of Loveland has settled with a man who was arrested on a DUI charge in 2020 even after he blew zeros during a breathalyzer test and after a blood test came back negative for any drugs.
The City of Loveland, which is insured through the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency, has agreed to settle for $400,000.
Harris Elias, a contractor and father of three, filed the lawsuit in March 2022 against Officer William Gates, his supervising Sgt. Antolina Hill, and the City of Loveland. He is represented by attorney Sarah Schielke with the Life & Liberty Law Office.
"No amount of money will ever return me to the peaceful state of naivete to our broken system that I enjoyed before I was stopped by former Officer Gates that night and put through the nightmare of this wrongful arrest," Elias said. "Nothing will shake from my heart the horror and shock I felt after blowing zeroes and not being set free. All I can hope is that with this lawsuit, with Gates gone from the department, and with this settlement, I have saved at least one other person from having to experience what I did."
He alleged in the lawsuit that then-Loveland Police Chief Bob Ticer created a competitive culture at the Loveland Police Department (LPD) to see who could collect the most DUI arrests, which came with "bragging rights, more funding, more equipment, more officers, and more (literal) trophies," but led to a "reckless disregard for driver innocence," according to the law firm. Officer Gates was the most prolific DUI arrest cop in the LPD and one of the top in the state, the law firm said, and therefore was earning extra income.
Gates was the one who arrested Elias on the evening of Jan. 3, 2020 while he was driving in Fort Collins. When Gates pulled him over, he accused him of an "overwhelming odor of alcohol," which Elias knew was false, according to the lawsuit. He grew wary and told the officer he would not answer any other questions. He was arrested on a DUI charge less than one minute after Gates contacted him.
At the police station, Elias did a breath test, where he blew a BAC of 0.000%, indicating no alcohol was detected. Gates then said he suspected drug impairment and made Elias submit to a blood test, according to the lawsuit. When Elias said he was stressed about the situation, Gates mocked him, according to the lawsuit.
At the station, Gates spoke with Sgt. Hill after muting their body-worn cameras. Sgt. Hill confirmed Gates was taking the proper steps. They both knew high DUI arrest numbers were rewarded at the police department, according to the lawsuit.
"At this moment, Hill could have told Gates to release Mr. Elias and not charge him with DUI, given that he had blown zeroes and there was no evidence of any other drug," the lawsuit reads. "She was his supervising sergeant and had command authority over him. But she didn’t."
Elias' girlfriend picked him up from the police department after officers refused to let him keep driving, and on the way back to their home, Elias asked to stop at a hospital to get an independent test of his blood. However, doctors were not available for the request. He said in the lawsuit that he feared Gates would tamper with the vials of his blood at the police department. He waited for weeks for the blood test results.
"For two months, this harrowing wait went on. During these eight horrible weeks, Mr. Elias spent significant time, funds, energy, and stress on trying to prepare for his worst fears, seeking an attorney to represent him and a hiring investigator to assist him in preparing to overcome whatever lies Gates attempted next," the lawsuit reads.
The blood tests finally came back on March 2, 2020, as negative for everything.
The following day, the district attorney's office dismissed the criminal case against Elias.
Elias filed a lawsuit, with the hopes of preventing an incident like this from happening again.
As a pilot, Elias had to work through if, and how, to report his arrest to the Federal Aviation Administration, which has strict mandatory reporting requirements.
Through records requests and civil case discovery, at least a dozen other victims were identified as having gone through the same issue with LPD officers, according to the lawsuit. The law firm uncovered evidence that LPD officers who made DUI arrests of innocent drivers were never punished and were instead "touted and defended by chain of command as 'solid' arrests in which their officers were identifying impairment that 'lab testing couldn’t,'" the law firm said.
Gates is no longer employed with the LPD. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, then-Chief Ticer resigned.
Attorney Schielke said as far as she can tell, the $400,000 settlement is the largest non-confidential monetary payment ever made in Colorado to settle a civil rights lawsuit where the primary allegation is a wrongful DUI arrest with no physical injuries or time spent in jail.
"While, like with most civil rights settlements, the City admits no wrongdoing, we feel the size of this particular settlement — and the fact that both the arresting officer William Gates and former Chief Ticer are no longer at LPD — are realities which speak volumes regarding accountability we were able to accomplish here," she said.
Schielke said there was never any question that Elias was innocent.
"This settlement sends a powerful message: Policing is not a game," she said. "DUI enforcement should never be a competition. There are innocent people’s lives and jobs at stake. Let this serve as a reminder to every cop in this state — if you decide to ignore all signs of driver innocence just to get another 'notch' on your DUI arrest belt — you will be held accountable."