Injustice in Colorado: Man Wrongfully Arrested for DUI Receives $400,000 Settlement

Harris Elias was driving home one night in January 2020 when he was pulled over by a Loveland, Colorado, police officer and falsely accused of driving drunk. Even after a breathalyzer test proved that he was sober, Elias was forced to take a blood test—which again proved his sobriety. 

After the arrest, Elias filed a lawsuit against the officer who arrested him. This week, the city of Loveland agreed to pay $400,000 to settle the case.

At around 10:30 p.m. on January 4, 2020, Elias was driving home from his girlfriend’s house when he was pulled over by Loveland police officer William Gates, who was part of a DUI-specific task force. Gates claimed that Elias failed to signal a lane change—a claim Elias disputes.

“Officer Gates regularly claims (falsely) that the drivers he arrests for DUI did not signal a lane change,” claimed Elias’ suit, which was filed in January 2022. “Gates does so because this is one of the most difficult allegations to disprove, given that Loveland PD does not employ dash cams (only bodycams) and so never capture the arrested individual’s actual driving.”

The lawsuit claims that Gates attempted to confuse Elias by asking him several questions extremely quickly, including “nearly simultaneously” asking Elias for his license and registration and how much he had drank that night. 

According to the complaint, Elias found the encounter unnerving, and after fulfilling his legal obligation to provide license and insurance, he informed Gates that he was using his right to remain silent and would not answer further questions. Gates replied, in an apparent attempt to create evidence that Elias was drunk, “Well, I smell the overwhelming odor of alcohol coming from your vehicle.” 

After Elias again refused to answer further questions, Gates returned to his patrol vehicle and called for additional officers. When two more police officers arrived, they eventually decided to arrest Elias and take him to the Loveland Police Station for a breathalyzer test.

Even though Elias’ breathalyzer test showed a 0.000 percent blood alcohol content level, Gates insisted that Elias must have been intoxicated and ordered him to take a blood test. According to the lawsuit, Elias requested an attorney at this point, but “Gates told him no, that he needed to agree to comply with a blood test now or he was going to mark him as a refusal and his license would be revoked.”

Elias eventually agreed to take the test. Nearly three months later, the results again came back negative, and the case against him was dismissed entirely. But this wasn’t the end of Elias’ troubles. Elias was a Federal Aviation Administration–licensed pilot, meaning that a false DUI arrest threatened his livelihood.

The FAA “has some of the most strict mandatory reporting requirements known to any agency. The penalty for failure to report can lead to an emergency revocation of all certificates (i.e., complete revocation of his pilot’s license),” the lawsuit reads, noting that this kicked off an incredibly stressful and complex process to report and explain his arrest. Even though the case was dropped, “Elias will have to report this wrongful arrest on every medical renewal with the FAA for the rest of his life.”

But some justice was served this week when the city of Loveland agreed to pay Elias a $400,000 settlement to end the lawsuit.

“This is, as far as we can tell, the largest non-confidential monetary payment ever made in Colorado to settle a civil rights lawsuit where the primary allegation is a wrongful DUI arrest with no physical injuries or time spent in jail,” Elias’ attorney, Sarah Schielke, told Fox 31, a local news station. “Policing is not a game. DUI enforcement should never be a competition. There are innocent people’s lives and jobs at stake.”

Elias wasn’t the only person harmed in a false DUI arrest by Gates. According to the suit, in the year before Elias’ arrest, Gates had made at least four false DUI arrests. 

“Hardly anyone realizes what a cash cow DUI arrests are for police,” Schielke told Fox 31. “The more arrests they make for this one type of crime, the more money they get, and the more awards they receive. Meanwhile, there are zero consequences for wrongful arrests of innocent people. Zero. It’s perverse.”