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COVID-19 outbreak reported at Montezuma County jail; intake of inmates limited

Thirteen inmates have tested positive for the COVID-19 at the Montezuma County Detention Center. (Journal file)
DA critical of order waiving arrests in favor of summons

An outbreak last week of about a dozen COVID-19 cases at the Montezuma County Detention Center led Sheriff Steve Nowlin to take action to limit the intake of new inmates, The Journal has learned.

Thirteen inmates have tested positive for the virus at the jail, Nowlin said Tuesday. Last week, Nowlin cited a “local spike” in viral transmission when he issued an order to limit the intake of inmates.

He said the jail would accept only those arrested on suspicion of Class 1 through Class 3 felonies, sexual assault, and mandatory domestic violence arrests and/or protection order violations. All others should be issued a summons.

The order would expire Nov. 7, unless extended.

The infected inmates have been isolated and are recovering, Nowlin said. None required hospitalization. The group is a mix of men and women.

“They are being watched closely. We had no positives in the jail for a year and a half during the pandemic, but with so much pressure to open everything back up, this is the result,” he said.

The detention center is working with the Montezuma County Health Department on the matter. Inmates are being tested for the virus on a volunteer basis and offered the vaccine if they want it.

On Thursday, Nowlin said, he was informed by a detention center nurse that it appeared COVID was circulating among inmates. Volunteer testing confirmed it.

To control the spread and to protect inmates and staff, Nowlin said he immediately issued an order that restricts which suspects are admitted into the jail. Law enforcement officers were directed to limit arrests in certain cases, and issue summonses instead.

If a suspect tests positive for the listed crimes, detention center deputies will be notified via telephone so that arrangements could be made for isolation.

Nowlin said he has discretion on implementing the order, and there are nuances as well. For example, if a subject is contacted for a failure to appear warrant, instead of arrest, the person could be sent to court instead of jail, get a new court date and have the warrant nullified.

In a Sept. 7 letter, 22nd Judicial Attorney Matt Margeson objected to the sheriff’s order, arguing it conflicts with Colorado law and was done without consultation with the DA’s office.

The statute “describes exceptionally limited circumstances under which law enforcement is authorized to use a felony summons in lieu of arrest,” Margeson said.

He said, according to the statute, a felony summons can only be used for Class 5 and Class 6 nonviolent felonies, and Nowlin’s order includes Class 4 felonies for summons.

Margeson added that felony summons also cannot be used for victim rights act crimes, for any “unclassified felony” punishable by a maximum penalty of more than 10 years in prison, for defendants with outstanding warrants, or for defendants who have used a deadly weapon in a crime, among other reasons.

In an interview Tuesday, Nowlin said that in response to the resurgence of COVID-19 infections, he must protect his department, and he has limited space to isolate inmates.

“I’m responsible for my deputies, inmates and jail staff,” he said. “It’s a short-term thing. I’d rather do this then end up having to shut down” because of a more severe outbreak.

Assistant District Attorney Will Furse believes Nowlin’s temporary arrest waiver presents a risk to the community.

“For example, someone could shoot someone and cause injury – a Class 4 felony – and be among the criminals Nowlin refuses to accept at the jail, even though the law requires it,” Furse said. “COVID-19, while certainly a threat to the community, is not an excuse to violate the law.”

Margeson requested that Nowlin modify his order to comply with state statute, but Nowlin said he declined.

“If it goes in the right direction, we will lift it,” Nowlin said, “and will continue to isolate new arrestees.”