Las Animas County reaches $1.5 million settlement with man tased in face by deputies

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A man has reached a $1.5 million settlement with Las Animas County and others two years after he was shocked in the face with a Taser and forcibly arrested by two sheriff’s deputies.

The settlement was announced Monday by the attorney for Kenneth Espinoza, who was shocked multiple times while handcuffed on Nov. 29, 2022. The Las Animas County Sheriff’s Office fired the deputy and lieutenant involved in the stop in August after officials found discrepancies between body camera footage and their accounts of the arrest.

“This settlement is not only a victory for Mr. Espinoza and his family,” said Espinoza’s attorney Kevin Mehr in a statement. “It’s a victory for the people of Colorado and sends a clear message to thugs like this who think a badge is a license for brutality, your day is done. If the sheriff won’t hold you accountable, we will.”

Espinoza and his son, Nathaniel Espinoza, were in Trinidad for construction work the day of the arrest. The pair needed to drop off their pick-up truck for service at a local Ford dealership, and Nathaniel Espinoza followed his father’s truck in a separate car to bring him home afterward.

While on their way to the shop, former Deputy Mikhail Noel pulled over Nathaniel Espinoza, whose father parked his truck behind the traffic stop to stay nearby. Lt. Henry Trujillo arrived soon after as Noel’s backup and ordered Kenneth Espinoza to leave the scene.

Body camera footage showed Trujillo yelling and cursing at Espinoza for pulling up behind his son. A chaotic argument ensued, during which Noel and Trujillo gave Espinoza conflicting directions on whether he could stay where he was.

Espinoza began to pull away when he was told to leave, then stopped after being ordered to stay. At that point, both Trujillo and Noel pointed their guns at him. Both yelled for him to get out of his pick-up truck, and the officers put him in handcuffs before taking him to Trujillo’s patrol car.

“Hold on, okay, guys,” Espinoza said in recordings released by the sheriff’s office. “I’m going peacefully.”

Espinoza told Trujillo he was having trouble fitting into the back of the vehicle because his leg was stuck, but Trujillo continued yelling at him and threatened to shock him if he didn’t comply. After becoming frustrated with the situation and yanking Espinoza back onto the sidewalk, Trujillo and Noel both deployed their Tasers at close range.

Prongs from one of the Tasers hit Espinoza in the face, while the others hit his chest. Officials said data from the devices showed the deputies shocked Espinoza about 35 times.

Trujillo eventually forced Espinoza into the patrol car’s backseat and took him to jail, where he threatened to put Espinoza in a restraint chair, which is only supposed to be used for violent detainees.

Undersheriff Rey Santistevan initially said in a report that the arrest and tasing were justified,, but he later admitted that he hadn’t reviewed any of the body camera footage before signing off on the officers’ accounts.

An independent investigation by the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office concluded that the deputies had no cause to arrest Espinoza, misused their tasers and filed inaccurate reports after the fact.

The third-party investigators also recommended the sheriff’s office consider a “referral of a criminal investigation” for Trujillo and Noel’s actions, though neither have faced charges thus far.

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