‘Rabid’ rangers or a routine traffic stop?
ASPEN – Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper and her daughter Traci are teaming to try to stop what they claim are overbearing tactics by “rabid rangers” in the U.S. Forest Service.
Traci, 20, is seeking a written apology from the Forest Service’s law enforcement branch for what she considers an illegal search and seizure on Highway 82 up Independence Pass last Labor Day weekend.
Patti Clapper said she is proud of her daughter for sticking up for her rights. She said while investigating the issue, she has talked to other young Aspen residents who feel they also faced heavy-handed tactics by the agency’s law enforcement officers, or LEOs. Clapper stressed she is pursuing the matter as a “mother,” not a county commissioner (see related story).
Traci filed a formal complaint Sept. 19 with the Forest Service, seeking a written apology from an officer that searched her car and his supervisor. In her version of the encounter, she wrote that she passed two law enforcement officers Sept. 4 while coming down the pass and was stopped near the winter closure gate. When she asked why she was stopped, she claimed she was told for not wearing her seat belt. She countered by saying that an unstrapped seat belt was a secondary offense and not something that could initiate a stop.
The officers asked to search her 1994 blue Subaru wagon and allegedly found a marijuana pipe, an empty can of beer and a full can of beer. Clapper was given a warning for possessing paraphernalia and for not wearing a seat belt. She was not ticketed.
Despite getting off with warnings, she pursued an apology on principle, her mom said.
“The basis of my complaint being that Officer Williams illegally pulled me over, then proceeded to illegally search my vehicle,” Traci’s letter says. “And in doing so Officer Williams clearly, blatantly, and knowingly violated” her rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
Clapper received a response dated Oct. 2 by Dan Nielsen, patrol captain for the Forest Service southwest zone, Rocky Mountain Region. The complaint and a response by the Forest Service were obtained by The Aspen Times under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Nielsen said two officers were assigned to Independence Pass, in part to “slow people down” on Highway 82 during the busy holiday weekend. He claimed Clapper was stopped for driving 32 mph in a 25-mph zone. Nielsen wrote that the officers maintained that Clapper was told the primary reason she was stopped was for speeding and that not wearing her seat belt was a secondary reason. He said Clapper gave consent for the search of her car. She placed her three dogs on leashes and moved to the shoulder of the road.
“I have found nothing during my inquiry into this incident that would indicate that either of the two officers did anything inappropriate or, as you stated, to ‘clearly, blatantly, and knowingly’ violate your 4th Amendment rights,” Nielsen wrote. “Officer Williams used a great deal of discretion in the way that he handled these violations by simply giving you warnings.”
Patti Clapper said she realizes there are contradictions in the exchange about the traffic stop. She said she believed her daughter was told she was pulled over for not wearing her seat belt. The officers changed their story because they had to justify the stop, according to Patti. She said her kids “aren’t perfect,” but they “do not lie.”
Clapper said there is a “bigger issue” that needs to be investigated regarding the conduct of Forest Service law enforcement officers’ actions around Aspen. She estimated she has heard of 20 incidents where young adults and their property were searched under allegedly questionable circumstances. Forest Service officials said they haven’t received other complaints about their law officers.
“A lot of things have happened to the kids in the community,” Clapper said.
She questioned if the Forest Service officers who stopped her daughter had the authority to pull her over on Highway 82, a state road.
Two spokesmen for the Colorado State Patrol’s public information office in Denver said the Forest Service could well contend jurisdiction on a state highway that goes through a national forest. There are numerous cases where police in a municipality or county have authority on a state road where it travels through their jurisdiction, the troopers noted. Any challenge to venue would need to be made in court, the troopers said.
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