A teenager held at gunpoint last summer by an off-duty police officer who assumed he had committed a crime is suing her for violating his civil rights.
In a complaint filed Thursday in Teton County District Court, Gerardo Becerra, 18, claims assault, battery, false imprisonment and outrage against Colorado police officer Vanessa Schultz.
Schultz, 32, is employed by the Lakewood Police Department but was off duty and vacationing in Jackson in July 2018 when she heard a loud noise near Snow King Avenue and Flat Creek Drive.
“Mr. Becerra, a diminutive 17-year-old Hispanic resident, was late one morning and running to catch his bus after leaving the apartment where he lived with his parents,” attorney Alex Freeburg stated in the complaint. “Without any more information, and without investigating any further, [Ms. Schultz] exited her vehicle, pulled out a pistol, and ordered Mr. Becerra to stop and get on the ground.”
The incident happened at noon July 6 in front of witnesses.
“While witnesses urged her to stop, and while Mr. Becerra pleaded with her, Ms. Schultz yelled ‘stay down’ and screamed ‘I have a gun and will shoot,’” the complaint states. “She continued to hold him at gunpoint in front of onlookers, relenting only after the police arrived and handcuffed Mr. Becerra under the erroneous impression that he had just committed a felony.”
Jackson police quickly cleared Becerra of any wrongdoing and said Schultz overreacted.
“She crossed over a certain line,” Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith said at the time, explaining that officers don’t have authority to arrest outside their sworn jurisdiction.
An investigation pointed to charging Schultz with felonious restraint and aggravated assault, but Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun, who was assigned as a special prosecutor, decided not to file criminal charges against the vacationing officer “because it is apparent she lacked criminal intent or evil mind.”
LeBrun did agree that Schultz shouldn’t have drawn her pistol. But not enough to file charges.
The complaint states that Schultz held her gun pointed at Becerra until responding police placed him into handcuffs.
“Mr. Becerra was unarmed, did not pose any threat of violence to Ms. Schultz or anyone else nearby, and never said anything that constituted a threat or indicated he was dangerous,” the complaint states. “Mr. Becerra told Ms. Schultz that he hadn’t done anything wrong, but she refused to talk to him, choosing instead to pull her pistol, point it at him, and threaten to fire unless he did what she said.”
The complaint states that Becerra has had lasting negative effects from the detainment.
“After being handcuffed in broad morning daylight and subsequently arrested outdoors, Mr. Becerra exhibited symptoms of severe anxiety including vomiting, hyperventilation, and distress from being held at gunpoint and threatened to be shot, along with the humiliation, disgrace and stigma that anyone would feel who experienced the same incident,” the complaint states. “Ms. Schultz’s conduct went beyond all bounds of decency and is considered atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”
The complaint claims that when police arrived on scene, Schultz told them she had stopped Becerra after he committed a felony.
She told dispatchers that an armed robbery was in progress.
When police arrived they saw Schultz with her gun pointed toward the teenager, who was on the ground.
“Ms. Schultz was almost gleeful and was clearly exhilarated as she spoke with Wyoming police without exhibiting any trace of contrition for her conduct or any hint of concern for Mr. Becerra’s wellbeing,” Freeburg wrote in the complaint. “Ms. Schultz’s conduct was malicious, intentional, or recklessly or callously indifferent to Mr. Becerra’s federally protected constitutional rights, so he is entitled to punitive damages.”
The damages being sought are not listed in the complaint. But to be filed in district court, the amount must exceed $50,000.
Schultz or an attorney has not yet filed a reply to the complaint. She’ll have 30 days to reply from the day she’s served. She remains an officer in Lakewood, Colorado.