Former Aurora police officer files first challenge to state’s sweeping police reform bill

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Colorado State Capitol, March 128, 2022.

A former Aurora police officer facing criminal charges for failing to intervene in a violent arrest last summer of an unarmed homeless man is legally challenging the state’s police reform law that held her accountable.

Officer Francine Martinez didn’t stop her partner, Officer John Haubert, when he became violent in arresting Kyle Vinson last July off of South Parker Road. Body camera footage released by the Aurora Police Department shows Martinez standing mostly by while Haubert hit Vinson with his pistol.

Martinez was fired from APD for the incident and has a jury trial scheduled next month on the “failure to intervene” charge, which is a misdemeanor.

“I want to apologize from the bottom of my heart,” said then-Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, when showing the Martinez and Haubert body camera footage to reporters. “We’re disgusted. We’re angry. This is not police work. We don’t train this. It’s not acceptable.”

What the officer's challenge says

Martinez’s attorney, David Goddard, is asking a judge to toss out that charge, ahead of the trial, in a challenge to the police reform law, Senate Bill 217, that created the “failure to intervene” requirement when it was signed in 2020 by Gov. Jared Polis.

Goddard, who declined to comment, wrote in the filing that the statute is “unconstitutionally vague” and that the law failed to provide Martinez fair notice on “the lack of opportunities to intervene in strikes that occurred without warning and in rapid succession or that touching another officer’s arm or directing that officer to move their hand was insufficient to comply with the statute.”

Goddard said in the filing that when Haubert placed a hand on Vinson’s neck, Martinez touched Haubert’s arm and told him to move his hand and Haubert complied with Martinez.

Goddard also argues that the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training board, or POST, doesn’t properly train or define the term “intervene” as it relates to law enforcement officers' duties. 

“In fact,” Goddard wrote. “No definition of intervene exists anywhere in Colorado’s criminal code.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado state Rep. Leslie Herod in a committee hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022 at the state Capitol.

Authors of the sweeping reform bill say law enforcement brought the 'failure to intervene' language to them.

This is the first known legal challenge to Colorado’s sweeping police reform bill that passed in a matter of weeks in the summer of 2020 as protests against police violence were raging. 

The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and was among the largest reform bills passed across the country.

In the first year, almost a dozen officers from around the state were charged with “failure to intervene” in misconduct cases.

The “failure to intervene” language was actually brought to state lawmakers by law enforcement, said Democratic state Rep. Leslie Herod, who was the chief author of the bill.

“We added the criminal penalty to it,” she said. “But this was not a point of contention. We all know and saw what happened to George Floyd … We all agreed that shouldn’t happen again.”

Herod said she believes the language is clear.

“We’re quite confident it would be upheld in court,” Herod said.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Kyle Vinson sits with his attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai, in Mohamedbhai's Denver law office. Aug. 3, 2021.

The man beaten in the arrest is considering a lawsuit against the city

Former Aurora Chief Wilson said at the time of Martinez’s arrest for failure to intervene that the agency had started training on the new law. She also told reporters the Aurora Police Department was working with Georgetown University on “active bystander training.”

“The goal of this training is to prevent misconduct,” Wilson said. 

Vinson, who was beat up in the July 2021 arrest, is considering a lawsuit against the city of Aurora. His attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai, said on Tuesday that Martinez showed no compassion for his client at the time of his arrest.

“Officer Martinez is the poster child for what’s wrong at the Aurora Police Department and law enforcement generally,” he said. “She expressed zero remorse for Kyle Vinson as he was being beaten within inches of his life.”

The attorney general’s office, which runs Peace Officers Standards and Training, had no immediate comment on the motion to dismiss.