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Estate of Castaway v. Traudt

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 9, 2019

ESTATE OF PAUL CASTAWAY, by and through Lillian Castaway a/k/a Lynn Eagle Feather, Plaintiff,


          Daniel D. Domenico United States District Judge.

         After threatening and injuring his mother with a knife, Paul Castaway fled to a nearby neighborhood where he was chased by Defendant Denver Police Officer Michael Traudt. When Mr. Castaway turned, walked toward Officer Traudt and refused to drop the knife, Officer Traudt shot and killed him. Mr. Castaway's estate brought suit, and the sole remaining claim alleges unconstitutional use of deadly force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Before the Court is Officer Traudt's motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. Because the Plaintiff has not shown a violation of Mr. Castaway's clearly established constitutional rights under the facts of this case, the Court GRANTS the motion.


         Viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the record shows the following.[1] On July 12, 2015, Paul Castaway attacked his mother, Lynn Eagle Feather, at her home by placing a knife to her throat, causing her to flee to the nearby Denver Indian Center on Morrison Road. Defendant Officer Michael Traudt and Officer Jerry Lara, who were partnered that day, were dispatched to respond. As the officers were on their way, the dispatcher described the incident as a “stabbing” because the knife had broken Ms. Eagle Feather's skin.

         When the officers arrived at the Indian Center, Ms. Eagle Feather showed them a small, but visible, puncture wound on her neck. She told the officers that Mr. Castaway entered her apartment without her permission, appeared to be drunk or high and extremely angry, poked her in the throat with a knife, and threatened her life and the lives of her two young grandchildren who were with her. She also told Officers Lara and Tradut she was “scared to death” of her son and “afraid that he [was] going to take [her] life”; he was mentally ill, on drugs, and an alcoholic; he had previously assaulted her; and he needed to go to prison to get help “before he hurts somebody else.” Ms. Eagle Feather told the officers that Mr. Castaway might still be in her apartment.

         Upon entering Mr. Castaway's information into a law enforcement computer database, the officers learned that Ms. Eagle Feather had a protection order against him, and that he was wanted on two active arrest warrants: one for “assault, kidnapping, hit & run/domestic violence” and one for a failure to appear in a municipal case.

         By that time, Sergeant Tim Hyatt had arrived and offered to check the apartment with Officers Lara and Traudt, which they did. But before they left, Carmelita Nichole Arellano-Black Elk informed them that Mr. Castaway had left the apartment, approached her car carrying a knife and threatened to kill her, and that he might have gone back inside.[2] Once inside the apartment, Officer Traudt observed signs of an altercation, including broken glass and the living room in disarray. Mr. Castaway was not there, and the officers returned to the Indian Center where Ms. Eagle Feather asked to press charges. After completing the interview, Ms. Eagle Feather asked the officers to accompany her back to her apartment to ensure that Mr. Castaway had not returned because she was afraid that he would return and kill her. Ms. Eagle Feather preferred to walk back to her apartment, so the officers planned to meet her there in their patrol car.

         As the officers were approaching her apartment, Ms. Eagle Feather pointed out Mr. Castaway across Morrison Road, and the officers drove to his location. As they started to get out of the car, Mr. Castaway saw them and started quickly walking away, eventually breaking into a run. Officer Traudt yelled, “Denver police. Stop.” But Mr. Castaway ran into a nearby trailer park through an opening in a chain link fence. Officer Lara followed Mr. Castaway and Officer Traudt ran parallel along the fence line, then jumping the fence to enter the trailer park.

         Officer Traudt noticed that Mr. Castaway was carrying a knife in his right hand, which he estimated to be twelve to eighteen inches long.[3]The officers ordered Mr. Castaway to drop the knife and get on the ground, but he instead put the knife to his own throat while “bobbing” in place. Officer Traudt drew his gun and yelled, “Drop the knife! Drop the knife! Drop the knife.” Mr. Castaway responded, “Kill me, pussy. Kill me, you fucking pussy” about three or four times before turning and running away.

         Officer Traudt re-holstered his weapon and again gave chase. Mr. Castaway paused briefly for a second time, but when Officer Traudt ordered him to drop the knife, Mr. Castaway did not comply and began running away again. During the pursuit, Officer Traudt noticed that children were present in the area, and he yelled for them to return to their homes.[4] Mr. Castaway ran around a corner, and behind a fence, and both officers lost sight of him.

         Officers Traudt and Lara drew their guns and, as they turned the corner and came within approximately ten feet of Mr. Castaway, he began advancing towards them with the knife held to his neck. Children ran to the area behind the officers. Officer Traudt immediately ordered Mr. Castaway to drop the knife and Officer Lara ordered him to get on the ground, but Mr. Castaway did not comply with either command. Officer Lara holstered his firearm to switch to his TASER, and Mr. Castaway began quickly walking toward Officer Traudt. Both officers continued backing up to create space while ordering Mr. Castaway to stop and to drop the knife.

         Moving backward, Officer Traudt brushed into a garbage can and walked over a speed bump, which he describes as causing him to lose his footing and to feel like he might be running out of space to retreat. Mr. Castaway continued advancing, and when he was approximately five to six feet away, [5] Officer Traudt fired three shots in quick succession-all of which struck Mr. Castaway, who fell to the ground and died from his injuries.

         The length of the interaction with Mr. Castaway, from the time the officers first radioed the foot chase until they radioed shots had been fired, was forty-two seconds.


         On June 11, 2016, Mr. Castaway's estate filed this action, by and through Ms. Eagle Feather, against the City and County of Denver, Officers Traudt and Lara in their personal and official capacities, and then-Police Chief Robert C. White in his personal and official capacities. (Doc. 1.) On October 10, 2016, Defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim and on qualified immunity grounds. (Doc. 19.) On September 28, 2017, Judge Wiley Y. Daniel[6] granted the motion in part, dismissing the entire action except the excessive force claim brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Officer Traudt in his individual capacity. (Doc. 33.) The case was then delayed significantly while Mr. Castaway's estate obtained certain documentation from the Denver Probate Court. (See Docs. 63-67.) On September 12, 2019, Officer Traudt filed this motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. (Docs. 83, 89, 91.) The motion is ripe for review.


         I. Summary Judgment Standards

         The purpose of summary judgment is to assess whether trial is necessary. White v. York Int'l Corp., 45 F.3d 357, 360 (10th Cir. 1995). Summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine dispute of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Adamson v. Multi Cmty. Diversified Servs., Inc., 514 F.3d 1136, 1145 (10th Cir. 2008). A fact is material if it could affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law; a dispute of fact is genuine if a rational jury could find for the nonmoving party on the evidence presented. Id. If a reasonable juror could not return a verdict for the nonmoving party, summary judgment is proper and there is no need for a trial. Celotex Corp. ...

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