DENVER — The Las Animas County Sheriff's Office said on Monday it has launched an internal investigation into the violent arrest of a man during a routine traffic stop last November.
On Nov. 29, Nathan Espinoza was pulled over on Main Street in Trinidad, about three hours south of Denver, for driving too close to the vehicle of Las Animas County Sheriff's Deputy Mikhail Noel.
Espinoza and his father, Kenneth, were driving separate vehicles to a local garage to have Kenneth Espinoza's truck serviced. When Kenneth Espinoza saw that his son had been pulled over, he stopped on the side of the road a few feet away, where he was approached by Lt. Henry Trujillo.
That was when things escalated quickly, according to body camera footage released by Kenneth Espinoza's attorney.
The body camera footage shows Trujillo ask Espinoza why he was stopped, and Espinoza said it was because he was waiting for his son. Within seconds, Espinoza and Trujillo were exchanging obscenities and Trujillo ordered Espinoza to leave the scene.
Noel then walked over from the traffic stop with Nathan Espinoza and gave Kenneth Espinoza the same command to leave. When Espinoza tried to drive away, Noel told him to "stay" and grabbed at the handle of the driver's side door. He then drew his gun and ordered Espinoza to get out of his car, the body camera video shows.
At that point, Espinoza reversed his pickup off the road while Trujillo pulled his vehicle up beside him. One of the deputies pulled Espinoza's arm through the open driver's side window while ordering him out of the vehicle.
Once Espinoza was out of his pickup, he was placed in handcuffs. Trujillo and Noel ordered Espinoza to get a patrol car and Tasered Espinoza multiple times, including at least once in the face, the body camera video shows.
Two minutes later, Trujillo and Noel told Espinoza to get out of the patrol vehicle. They then dragged him out of the patrol car, threw him to the ground and searched him, before putting him back in the car.
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Ed Obayashi, a deputy sheriff and use-of-force expert in California, said the encounter with Espinoza was handled poorly and that there appeared to be no justification for the deputies' actions.
"As a general rule, we do not use Tasers against handcuffed suspects unless they pose an immediate threat to the officers. In this case, I don't see an immediate threat to the safety of the officers, especially from a handcuffed individual," Obayashi said. "This is kind of a textbook example of how not to handle a situation like this."
Espinoza was initially charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. Prosecutors have now dropped those charges.
Kevin Mehr, Espinoza's attorney, said a civil lawsuit will soon be filed.
"This is almost a law school exam fact pattern: identify all the instances of police misconduct. That's really what we've got here. It's unbelievable what happened to poor Ken," Mehr said.
The two deputies involved in the incident are still with the department and, so far, have not been disciplined.
The Las Animas County sheriff declined to comment on the story pending the outcome of the internal investigation.
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