Mountain Law: Impersonating police in Colorado (column)
It was reported recently that the Silverthorne Police Department was looking for a man who allegedly posed as a sheriff’s deputy at a convenience store while brandishing a weapon. The man apparently approached two patrons of the store and requested that they produce identification. They complied with these requests. The man eventually left the area. In light of this incident, this article reviews the law regarding impersonation of a peace officer in Colorado and also summarizes basic legal rights that people have when interacting with law enforcement.
Colorado law makes it a crime to impersonate a peace officer. A person commits the crime if he, or she, falsely pretends to be a peace officer and performs an act in that pretended capacity. The elements of this offense allow people to dress as peace officers at Halloween so long as they don’t undertake any traditional police duties while pretending to be an officer.
Impersonating a peace officer is a serious offense because it undermines the trust and confidence that we place in law enforcement. In addition, it is a relatively common occurrence that the person impersonating a peace officer commits a sexual assault on the victim. Impersonating a peace officer used to be merely a misdemeanor in Colorado. However, that changed following the 2003 abduction and murder of Lacy Miller, a 20-year-old student at the University of Northern Colorado, by a man impersonating a police officer. The man used flashing red and blue lights to pull Lacy over. A 2004 law known as “Lacy’s Law” made impersonating a peace officer a class 6 felony and also made it a class 1 misdemeanor to use blue and/or red flashing lights on the front of a non-authorized vehicle. Impersonating a peace officer can now result in serious jail time and other consequences.
Knowing your rights can help minimize the risk of interacting with real or impersonated law enforcement. In the case of a traffic stop, it is acceptable to drive to a well-lit, high-traffic area. It is also acceptable to ask a law enforcement officer for identification. A person can call 911 during a stop to confirm whether the stop is legitimate.
If a person encounters a peace officer on the street, he or she is not required to talk to the peace officer. The person can simply say words to the effect of, “I do not want to talk to you” and walk away calmly. The person could also ask if he or she is free to go and, if the answer is yes, walk away. A person should never run from a peace officer. If the peace officer says that the person is not free to go, and the person is not under arrest, then the person is being detained. Being detained is not the same as being arrested, though an arrest may follow. At this point, the peace officer can require the detained person to provide identification. The peace officer can also conduct a pat down if they have “reasonable suspicion” that the detained person might be armed and dangerous. A peace officer cannot search any more than this without either consent or probable cause.
If a person is stopped in his or her car by a peace officer, the person is required to show a driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance if asked to produce these documents. Peace officers can also require people to step out of the car, and they may separate occupants of the vehicle from each other to question them and compare their answers, but no one has to answer any questions. The peace officer cannot search the vehicle without consent or probable cause. The peace officer cannot use refusal to give consent as a basis for probable cause.
Impersonation of peace officers is thankfully a relatively rare occurrence, at least in Summit County. Nonetheless, everybody should know their rights when interacting with law enforcement.
Noah Klug is owner of The Klug Law Firm, LLC, in Summit County, Colorado. Contact at (970) 468-4953 or Noah@TheKlugLawFirm.com.
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