The suspect in this weekend’s shooting spree in Colorado Springs was known to law enforcement long before authorities say he walked into LGBTQ nightclub Club Q and opened fire, killing five people and wounding 17. Others were injured.
Back in 2021, a sheriff’s deputy in SWAT gear responded to a bomb threat at her home after she allegedly threatened her mother with a homemade bomb, forcing neighbors in surrounding homes to evacuate , while the bomb squad and crisis negotiators asked him to surrender.
Critics say that concerned behavior is exactly the type of indicator that police or families can use to request an “emergency at-risk” order to block access to firearms and prevent gun violence.
But if members of the public inquire about the incident, the police, courts and prosecutors all have to say there is no record of it, as if it never happened.
The situation highlighted a national trend in criminal justice reform known as “collateral relief”. In short: giving those accused of a crime the opportunity to proceed with an arrest that never resulted in a conviction, as happened in 2021 with Anderson Lee Aldrich in El Paso County, who was killed in a mass shooting in Colorado late Saturday. Was the suspect in the shooting.
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The law, and others like it in Colorado, passed in 2019 and was sponsored by State Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, the site of the massacre.
He says that the missing police reports are not a defect, but the system is working as intended.
“We overcharge, over-carry and over-criminalize everything in our criminal justice system,” Lee said Tuesday. “There are a lot of people walking around who have records from their past as a hindrance to getting ahead, getting loans, getting housing jobs or housing.”
Lee said questions about the system should be directed to the district attorney who last year decided against prosecuting Aldrich — which could have created a criminal record. That record, in turn, could prevent the shooter from legally purchasing a firearm.
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Colorado Mayor John Suthers and District Attorney Michael Allen declined to answer questions about the 2021 event at a press conference Monday evening.
“Hopefully there will be a time when we can have a specific discussion about any prior interactions with law enforcement,” Suthers said.
Jeff Roberts, head of the Freedom of Information Coalition of Colorado, said his group opposes stricter laws to seal criminal records that could have unintended consequences.
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“We are now seeing that there are instances where it is very important for the public to know about the background of a person accused of a crime,” Roberts said. “In this case, there is going to be a lot of scrutiny over the non-use of the red flag law.”
Colorado passed a red flag law in 2019 that allows law enforcement or anyone to petition a court to temporarily take away firearms from someone deemed a danger to themselves or others.
A consortium of news outlets, including USA Today, has filed a petition with the court to remove records from the 2021 incident involving Aldrich. An attorney for the group argued, “As a result of (Aldrich’s) recent acts, the public interest in disclosure of his prior criminal justice record now greatly outweighs his interest in privacy.”
Colorado’s District Attorney’s Council has raised concerns about record sealing laws, but has primarily focused on ensuring that records are still available to law enforcement.
So far, they’ve been successful in those efforts, said Timothy Lane, the group’s legislative liaison and policy analyst.
“There is a difference between sealing and removal,” Lane said. “All of these records still exist and may be shared with law enforcement agencies when there is a proper purpose.”
Lane said this creates an uncomfortable situation for some in law enforcement, who are unable to publicly respond to misinformation.
A study by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that nearly two-thirds of US states have adopted some sort of records-clearing process.
He identified three different routes: with a petition, automatically or automated with a set of software.
For example Tennessee, Colorado, Nebraska, Utah and California all have laws that automatically seal records if certain criteria are met.
Contribution: Associated Press
Nick Penzenstaedtler is a reporter with the USA TODAY investigative team. Contact him at [email protected] or @npenzenstadler or on Signal at (720) 507-5273.