The 6th Judicial District attorney announced this week that he is dropping felony charges against a Durango resident on Juneteenth, as protests across the country and in downtown Durango denounce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“It’s a huge relief,” Angelia Liggins, the 22-year-old defendant, told The Durango Herald. “It would have had a huge impact on school, work, every aspect of my life.”
Liggins said she believes she was racially stereotyped as a Black woman by the La Plata County Sheriff’s deputy involved in her arrest, even though she made mistakes.
District Attorney Christian Champagne said it is the role of law enforcement to redouble their efforts to erase racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“If we take race out of the equation entirely, we are ignoring the historical trauma Black people have faced for years,” Champagne said in a phone interview. “It’s not fair.”
Liggins went to Walmart in Durango to buy popcorn and Kool-Aid for a movie night with her roommates on a cold evening in November 2019.
Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies received a report that a man driving a black Mazda sedan was throwing shopping carts and harassing employees at the same Walmart. As the employee made the call, the man had left the store and driven north on South Camino del Rio, away from the scene, the employee told dispatchers.
Liggins exited the Walmart with her purchased items and got into a gold sedan to leave. As she pulled away, she noticed a La Plata County Sheriff’s vehicle following her out of the parking lot.
“I knew he was going to stop me,” Liggins said. “I had a bad feeling it would be worst-case scenario.”
Liggins’ previous experiences living in Durango and dealing with the Sheriff’s Office made her think she would be stopped, she said.
“They drive by, shine a light in my house to see if I’m doing something,” Liggins said in an interview.
In anticipation of what she thought was to come, Liggins pulled into the closest parking space on the side of the building and got out of the car, she said.
The sheriff’s deputy thought this was suspicious behavior, and got out of his vehicle with a flashlight to speak with Liggins.
An incident report from the Sheriff’s Office says the deputy “saw a Black, what I thought at the time to be male, subject running out of the front door and get into a gold sedan.”
The deputy also wrote that as the “subject was getting into the vehicle, I saw several small white bags fall onto the ground.”
The deputy asked a Durango police officer to search near where Liggins parked for the small white bags.
But no bags were ever found.
Liggins said she did not drop small white bags, and she doesn’t remember dropping anything else in the parking lot. She said it’s possible the deputy used that as justification to follow her out of the parking lot.
The deputy followed Liggins to “see if it was possibly the vehicle or subject from the harassment call,” the report reads.
After approaching Liggins, the deputy realized she was a woman and not the subject of the harassment call but asked for her identification information.
“I wasn’t completely innocent,” Liggins said.
She had been driving without a valid driver’s license, and had a $500 warrant for a previous encounter with police, for which she didn’t show up for court. But she said the initial contact from the deputy, who was unaware of her warrant, felt like racial profiling.
“I was scared,” Liggins said.
So she gave the deputy a fake name, Angelia White. Giving law enforcement a false name is a Class 6 felony.
La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said he asked the district attorney to dismiss the charge against Liggins, because “someone too scared to go to jail” shouldn’t be charged with a felony.
“Have I seen racial bias in policing? Absolutely, but that is not the case here,” Smith said in an interview with the Herald.
In his previous role at a youth outreach program with the U.S. Department of Justice in Oklahoma City, Smith set up after-school safe havens and tutoring for kids to help them avoid falling into gangs in the area.
“I saw racial bias in policing in my two years there, but I haven’t seen racial bias in policing in my 20 years here,” Smith said.
Smith showed the Herald the full, 51-minute video of the interaction with Liggins taken from the deputy’s body camera.
“We have nothing to hide,” he said.
But some of the comments documented on video felt racist to Liggins, she said.
At one point, the deputy calls for backup. The deputy tells Liggins, “I have a feeling he will probably know who you are,” suggesting the responding officer will know who Liggins is, presumably from previous run-ins.
Smith said the deputy made the remark because the sergeant who was responding has a “robotic memory” for cars, people and addresses in the area.
Another officer on scene can be heard on the video saying, “I’ve been watching this car for a while. It doesn’t have anything on it,” suggesting it wasn’t suspected of being involved in illegal activities. It is unexplained why law enforcement had been “watching” the car in the first place.
At least four law enforcement officers and vehicles had surrounded Liggins during the course of the incident, which Smith said he would discuss with Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer about modifying in the future.
Given the protests and backlash against law enforcement after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Smith said the Sheriff’s Office will adapt if need be.
“I don’t know how it feels to be Angelia,” he said.
But Smith said the deputies and police officers who arrived were lenient with Liggins. They let her keep music playing from her phone and offered to let her sit in one of the patrol cars while they waited for the fingerprint scanner, because it was cold out.
After obtaining Liggins’ correct identity through the fingerprint scanner, the deputy arrested Liggins and took her to the county jail, where she spent the next two days.
“There is a record of her, she has been in our jail before,” Smith said.
The bond for a Class 6 felony is $3,000, but Liggins was released on $1,500 bail.
“The tradition in law enforcement is trying to get it right,” Smith said, “but we don’t always.”
After closely reviewing the case, Champagne, the district attorney, said dismissing it was the right thing to do.
“Everything the sheriff did was justifiable,” Champagne said. “He was just checking in – what if she had been the victim of the disturbance?”
Over the past two or three weeks, negotiations between prosecutors and Liggins’ attorney ramped up, Champagne said.
The District Attorney’s Office offered a plea agreement that would have allowed Liggins to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, but Liggins and her attorney refused.
Champagne decided to dismiss the charges, saying in today’s day in age, if there is any inkling that “subconscious racism” was involved, it deserves serious consideration.
“I didn’t expect it,” Liggins said. “I thought my wrong would outweigh (the sheriff’s) stigma.”
O’Shay Neil, a friend of Liggins’ and an activist with the Black Lives Matter chapter in Los Angeles, said the deputy’s decision to follow Liggins is “another example of officers abusing their power.”
He joined Black Lives Matter to speak out against police brutality after watching Liggins’ younger sister get “roughed up” by police officers in North Dakota.
“It starts a cycle, and it’s hard for the person to get out,” Neil said.