AURORA | Several days after Aurora police stopped almost 20 cars and detained 40 innocent people during a search for a pistol-wielding bank robber, questions lingered about the bizarre police operation.
The Saturday afternoon operation ended with the arrest of Christian Paetsch, 45, the man police say robbed an Aurora bank wearing a bee-keeper mask and brandishing two pistols earlier that afternoon.
Nobody was hurt in the two-hour operation, but some have raised questions about the constitutionality of stopping every car at a busy intersection and handcuffing innocent people.
“Its a very murky area of the law,” said David Lane, a Denver civil rights lawyer.
Lane said his law office has received several calls from people stopped during the operation wondering if the police department’s actions were legal.
“People have been curious to know, have their rights been violated… ” he said. “Nobody is happy about this. There are some people upset at being pulled out of their car at rifle-point and being handcuffed when they have done nothing wrong.”
Still, Aurora police Chief Dan Oates defended the department’s decision this week.
“We had a virtual certainty that the bank robber was in one of those cars,” Oates said.
The incident started around 3:50 p.m. Saturday when police say the robber barged into a Wells Fargo Bank at East Hampden Avenue and South Chambers Road and pointed a gun several people in the bank.
The robber, who was wearing a mask that covered virtually all of their face, then fled the area.
Oates said officers determined that the robber had to be in one of 19 vehicles headed east on East Iliff Avenue near South Buckley Road at about 4:20 p.m. The intersection is about two miles northeast of the bank.
Oates declined to say exactly how officers knew the suspect was going to pass through the intersection, but stressed that investigators were certain they would.
Officers didn’t have details about the suspect’s appearance, including gender and race, so they stopped every car, Oates said.
The operation lasted more than two hours and Oates said officers searched just the one car where they found the mask, guns and suspect.
Oates said “investigative detentions” like the one Saturday are very rare, but allowable under the law.
A police department spokesman said Tuesday one of the people stopped had lodged a complaint. Oates said several others who weren’t at the scene but heard reports about the operation have lodged complaints as well.
Oates apologized for the inconvenience the operation imposed on people, but said it was needed to catch a dangerous bank robber.
“No question we inconvenienced citizens, and I feel badly about that,” Oates said.
The operation will be reviewed, Oates said, but he stands by the lieutenant who ordered it.
“I can’t find fault with the decisions that were made,” he said.
Lane said he can’t recall any local police departments launching similar operations.
The closest comparison, he said, is a DUI checkpoint, but police have to take steps during those to safeguard the rights of motorists.
And while DUI checkpoints are legal, Lane said courts have ruled that similar checkpoints looking for drugs are not. In those case, Lane said police would likely find drugs, but they can’t stop a mass of innocent drivers.
“Even though you can say with a mathematical degree of certainty that a certain percentage of the cars that drive past any intersection have drugs in them, that doesn’t mean the cops get to stop every car going through an intersection and search it for drugs,” her said.
Reach reporter Brandon Johansson at 720-449-9040 or firstname.lastname@example.org