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Heidel v. Rio Blanco County Sheriff’s Office.

023 COA 41. No. 21CA0370. Wrongful Death—Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Waiver of Immunity—Jail Operation.

May 18, 2023

Rowell was arrested and charged with third degree assault of her common law husband, Heidel, with whom she shared a home. The next day, the court entered a mandatory protection order requiring Rowell to vacate the home and prohibiting her from having any contact with Heidel. About six weeks later, Rowell pleaded guilty to harassment, and the assault charge was dismissed. Rowell was sentenced to one year of probation during which the mandatory protection order remained in effect. During her probationary period, police responded to Heidel’s home on a report that he had assaulted a third party. Rowell was present in the home and was arrested and charged with violation of a protection order. Three days later, Rowell committed suicide at the Rio Blanco County Jail. Rowell’s family subsequently sued the Rio Blanco County Sheriff’s Office, the sheriff, and several officers (collectively, RBSO), asserting wrongful death claims. The RBSO moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing, as relevant here, that the claims were barred by the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA) and not subject to any statutory waiver of immunity. The court determined that Rowell was incarcerated but not yet convicted of the crime for which she was being incarcerated, and thus the CGIA did not bar the family’s claims and the waiver of immunity applied.

On appeal, RBSO contended that the trial court erred by finding that Rowell was not incarcerated pursuant to her harassment conviction because, but for that conviction, she would not have been subject to a protection order and would not have been subsequently arrested or incarcerated. Under the CGIA, the state waives immunity for injuries resulting from negligent jail operation if the claimant is incarcerated but not yet convicted of the crime for which such claimant is incarcerated. Here, it is undisputed that Rowell was convicted of harassment in 2015. However, at the time of her suicide in 2016, she was detained only for the offense of violation of a protection order, but she had not been convicted of that offense. Therefore, Rowell was incarcerated but not yet convicted of the crime for which she was being incarcerated, notwithstanding that the protection order arose out of the earlier harassment conviction. Accordingly, the CGIA does not bar Rowell’s claims.

The order was affirmed.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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