Police revamping drug-test policies
Aspen’s top administrator said this week that, while the recent jailing of an innocent man on drug charges was regrettable, it was not the fault of the police department that the man spent unnecessary time behind bars.
Nevertheless, said City Manager Amy Margerum, the Aspen Police Department already is working on new policies and procedures concerning the handling of suspected drugs, to avoid any similar incidents in the future.
Those policy changes, she said this week, will include a requirement that two officers be present for the field testing of any suspected drugs, and that all such tests be performed twice as a matter of course before an arrest is made.
British visitor Brian Palmer languished in jail for 14 days in July and August while law enforcement authorities either put off doing further tests on a substance they believed was cocaine or neglected to follow up on negative test results, even after the District Attorney’s office ordered the subsequent testing.
Palmer had been jailed on July 15 after being picked up on an Aspen street corner, unconscious, and taken to Aspen Valley Hospital by police.
It was at the hospital that staffers found a plastic bag containing a “white powdery substance” that tested positive for the presence of cocaine, according to court and police records.
But at a July 19 court appearance, Palmer said the substance was baking soda, which he was planning to take with him on an upcoming camping trip for use in cleaning cooking utensils.
Aspen Deputy District Attorney Lawson Wills ordered more tests done, and those tests were at one time believed to have been done on July 19. Recent statements from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, however, have said the retesting date was July 29, only a few days before Palmer’s second scheduled court appearance. The results of those three additional tests were negative, as were subsequent tests by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
Palmer has since sent letters to the city, Pitkin County and the District Attorney’s office, announcing his intention to file a lawsuit over the matter.
Margerum, who is Police Chief Tom Stephenson’s direct supervisor, said on Monday, “Clearly there was a mistake.” But, she maintained, since District Attorney Wills turned the case over to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office because the hospital is in the county, the blame for the mistake lies with the county.
“In terms of the timing and how long it took, that was the sheriff’s issue,” she said. “Our involvement was the testing, and, yes, it was a huge error.”
She said she has not spoken to Police Officer Bill Linn, who conducted the initial field test on the substance found on Palmer.
Nor has she spoken or written to Palmer, she said, adding that it would not be appropriate now that there is a threat of legal action against the city.
Among the police department’s expected changes in procedures, Margerum said, will be additional training in how to conduct the field tests for drugs.
A list of the proposed policy changes also recommends that, in cases where there are questions as to the validity of a field test, “no legal action will be taken pertaining to this drug case until there is a formal laboratory analysis report stating the presence of an illegal substance.”
And when a field test result is “refuted by a defendant,” the recommendations continue, additional tests will be conducted and if any produce negative results, the District Attorney’s office is to be contacted and a request made for the release of the suspect pending further testing.
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International visitors have traditionally accounted for 10 to 20 percent of Aspen Skiing Co.’s skier visits in recent past seasons. Travel fears and restrictions tied to the coronavirus are expected to wipe out most of that market for 2020-21.