Colorado Springs Police Department expects to add officers in 2021 in part because the city was able to use federal aid to offset police and fire department payrolls. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

A federal judge confirmed last month that neither Colorado Springs police nor the city itself was liable for any constitutional violation, tossing a lawsuit from the leader of a cannabis-focused ministry who was unhappy with officers' presence on her property.

Candace Sgaggio, the "high priestess" for Green Faith Ministry, claimed law enforcement personnel violated her First Amendment right to freely exercise her religious beliefs, retaliated against her, and performed a search and seizure on her church's property without a warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment. She submitted multiple videos to the court purporting to show officers "secured" her building and denied access to members of the church.

Last month, U.S. District Court Senior Judge R. Brooke Jackson, who previously dismissed Sgaggio's lawsuit in March, reconsidered his decision pursuant to Sgaggio's request. Although Jackson viewed additional video footage from Sgaggio, he stuck by his original findings that police made no effort to control her property, interfere with religious activity or otherwise intimidate church members.

"I understand that plaintiff interprets the videos differently, but I have considered them carefully, and the foregoing is my interpretation of them and their significance," Jackson concluded in a July 15 order.

Sgaggio, who represented herself in court, described two episodes in early 2019 that allegedly illustrated a pattern of constitutional violations and biased conduct from Colorado Springs police. On Jan. 21, 2019, a person working the door at Green Faith — formerly located in the 1800 block of N. Academy Blvd. — called Sgaggio to say police had arrived.

An officer, Marcus Allen, reportedly was looking for an at-risk person. But Sgaggio wrote in her lawsuit that church members were "freaking out" because Allen "also arrested a member in the parking lot."

She accused Allen of coming onto her property to "search, seize, harass, intimidate, fish, retaliate, detain and restricted (sic) individuals from their spiritual and religious establishment." Sgaggio also pointed to a sign posted on the ministry warning against trespassing, including for "all government agents."

Allen's presence, according to Sgaggio, amounted to an illegal seizure of her property that "caused my house of worship to be placed on lockdown."

Three months later, on April 20, Sgaggio's ministry was holding a "sacred celebration" when Colorado Springs police again, allegedly, caused her to place the church on lockdown. Officers were by the entrance of her parking lot on her property, having responded to a vehicle accident and were waiting for a tow truck. Reportedly, church members asked why police were "blocking" the entrance and "if we were going to be raided."

"I then announced (to) the members that no one was allowed to leave or enter. I felt that CSPD and other unknown government agents would attempt to breach the front door," she wrote.

Aside from those two encounters, large portions of Sgaggio's federal complaint claimed Colorado Springs engages in racially-biased policing and fails to impose meaningful discipline on officers for constitutional violations. She also was critical of the city's "extra duty program," in which business or individuals can hire off-duty officers for security. Sgaggio claimed the program contributes to a shortage of police and deters the city from disciplining its existing officers.

The defendants asked Jackson to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing Sgaggio had failed to show any officer had violated her clearly-established constitutional rights. If Sgaggio and her church members stopped worshipping while police were on her property, wrote the Colorado Springs City Attorney's Office, it was a product of Sgaggio's own choice. Further, there was no attempted search of the property.

In response to Sgaggio's contention that the extra duty program creates an officer shortage, "her alleged injuries arise not from the lack of police presence but rather from an abundance of police presence at the property," observed Assistant City Attorney Anne H. Turner.

Jackson, in a March 31 order, agreed with the defendants. There were no allegations Allen prevented anyone from leaving the ministry during his Jan. 21 visit, nor that the officers responding to the April 20 traffic accident even approached her building.

"Ms. Sgaggio’s alleged fear, without any accompanying allegations that would make that fear reasonable, caused her injury, not any actions of the officers," Jackson wrote.

Similarly, the judge did not believe Allen's presence on the ministry's front porch asking whether he could enter was the kind of activity that infringed on Sgaggio's First Amendment right to exercise her religion.

"Though Ms. Sgaggio states that she feared the officers would break down the door, she does not allege any facts that would make that fear reasonable. It was Ms. Spaggio’s choice, not government coercion, that resulted in her stopping to pray on this occasion," Jackson added.

He concluded Sgaggio's claims were "largely frivolous." Because the officers had not committed a constitutional violation, Jackson determined the city and its leaders could not have liability either.

Sgaggio then asked Jackson to reconsider his order, submitting two additional videos from the police encounter of Jan. 21. While the judge warned that reconsideration can only take place under certain circumstances — and is not meant to relitigate arguments already covered in court — he elected to watch the videos because of Sgaggio's status as a self-represented plaintiff.

The footage left Jackson unmoved. 

"There is nothing in this video that supports a claim of interference with religious rights or an improper search or seizure or that officers took control of the property," he wrote.

Sgaggio has filed an appeal of the case's dismissal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. In an emailed statement, Sgaggio said she was optimistic she had alleged a genuine Fourth Amendment violation.

"I am ready to take my case to the Supreme Court if necessary. CSPD does not act like this when it comes to other churches," she said.

The case is Sgaggio v. Suthers et al.

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