Charges dropped in Basalt bar dust-up
BASALT – Charges have been dismissed against two men who got into a dust-up with police at a Basalt bar last August.
The Eagle County District Attorney’s Office dismissed charges of obstructing a police officer and harassment against Nick Surles in court Friday. The same charges against Ian Gray were dismissed a week earlier, according to the court clerk’s office.
“I don’t think it was a very sound case to begin with,” said James Fahrenholtz, Gray’s attorney. He said the decision not to prosecute the case shows the police officers “overreacted” during the incident.
Gray alleged from the beginning of the incident that his rights were violated by the officers. “I feel some degree of vindication, obviously,” he said Friday.
Basalt Police Chief Keith Ikeda said his department never arrested or issued a summons to the two men. It forwarded a report to the district attorney’s office and let prosecutors make the decision on charges. Surles and Gray received summonses in September.
Ikeda said he was informed earlier this month that the district attorney’s office would drop the charges because the likelihood of winning a conviction wasn’t considered good.
Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert couldn’t be reached for comment Friday on why the cases were dismissed.
The incident occurred shortly before 1 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 15, at the Basalt Bistro. Surles and Gray were drinking at the bar when three Basalt officers entered on a “walk through.” Gray said in an interview shortly after the incident that he, Surles and some other patrons felt the officers lingered too long in the bar.
Some patrons jeered the officers as they departed. Gray said he “chimed in” by saying, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.”
The officers exited the bar, conferred outside, then officer Brian Lemke re-entered. The perspective of what happened next differs between the officers, and Surles and Gray.
Gray said he was ordered to leave the bar but he wasn’t told what he did wrong. Lemke said he told Gray he was under arrest for disorderly conduct, according to a police report.
Gray was placed in handcuffs. He grabbed his barstool and refused to let go. Lemke took Gray to the floor, where a confrontation continued for several minutes.
Surles and another officer, Sgt. Stu Curry, came up with a plan to diffuse the situation. Surles convinced Gray to walk outside. Gray’s handcuffs were removed and the men were told they could leave.
Gray filed a complaint the following Monday about alleged police misconduct. Basalt police decided it would look like they were out for revenge if they decided whether or not Surles and Gray should be charged, so they turned their reports over to the district attorney’s office.
The police department’s internal investigation of Gray’s complaint concluded the officers acted appropriately during the incident. The attorneys for Surles and Gray begged to differ.
Fahrenholtz and Greg Greer, the attorney for Surles, said a video taken on another bar patron’s cell phone showed their clients did nothing wrong during the incident. Gray simply demanded to know why he was being asked to leave, then he refused to release his bar stool, Fahrenholtz said.
“It also shows the police officers didn’t show good discretion,” he said. “Police officers need to be more tolerant than the average citizen when they’re heckled.”
Greer said the videotape from the cell phone was the key piece of evidence. Without it, it would have been the word of Surles and Gray against the word of the officers. “If you’re not a police officer, you’re at a disadvantage,” he said.
The video shows Gray getting wrestled to the ground by the officer and shows Surles “just asking, ‘What did he do? What did he do?’ over and over again,” Greer said.
Surles helped diffuse the situation by convincing Gray to walk outside, Greer said. “He assists them and two weeks after this occurs he receives a summons for obstructing,” he said.
No citizens want to live in a place where police officers cannot be asked what actions they are taking or why, Greer said.
Surles said he lost about a month’s pay fighting the charges, but said it was “well worth the money.”
Surles acknowledged after his court appearance that the sight of the three officers in the bar rubbed him the wrong way. He said he never saw officers enter the Basalt bars, other than to eat, before Curry joined the department a few years ago.
Some Basalt bar patrons are ill at ease with officers walking through because they feel they are then targets for possible traffic stops. Surles acknowledged he made a comment to Curry shortly after the officers entered the bar on the night of the incident.
“I was just asking Stu if he was in there entrapping the next DUI,” Surles said.
He said he doesn’t know if tensions have since eased between bar patrons and police. He hasn’t returned to any Basalt bars.
“You don’t have to kick me but once and I won’t be back,” he said.
Ikeda said his department maintains that bar walk throughs are a legitimate tool used in “community policing,” where officers regularly mix with residents. But the department’s evaluation of the Bistro incident spurred some changes in procedures.
“Given the same circumstances, we wouldn’t approach it the same way,” Ikeda said. Officers would exit the bar if they felt there was a confrontational situation, after talking to the owners and staff. They would return later if requested by the owners, he said.
The standard walk-throughs continue, Ikeda said. His department previously agreed to work more closely with bar and restaurant staffs, and be more “friendly and approachable” while in the establishments.
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