Civil Rights Clinic 2023 Highlights
In October 2023, Civil Rights Clinic student attorneys won an appeal to the Fifth Circuit for their client, a Black man who was unconstitutionally detained and subjected to a vehicle search by several white police officers from the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana. Their client (represented by different counsel in the trial court) brought a § 1983 claim asserting that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights by prolonging his detention without reasonable suspicion and searching his car without probable cause based on one officer’s claim that he allegedly detected an odor of marijuana. The defendant officers moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which the district court granted.
On appeal, the CRC student team—Andrew Ferland, Kaity Tuohy and Katie Wynne— argued that the district court misapplied the summary judgment standard by finding the officers did not commit a constitutional violation. Their brief detailed the evidence presented to the district court, which demonstrated a genuine dispute of fact regarding whether the officer detected a marijuana odor. They also argued it was clearly established that a traffic stop cannot be prolonged for a drug dog sniff without reasonable suspicion and that a warrantless vehicle search cannot be conducted absent probable cause.
The CRC took the appeal as part of the ACLU of Louisiana's Justice Lab project, through which law firms bring cases challenging racially discriminatory policing practices in Louisiana, and participating law school clinics appeal unfavorable constitutional and qualified immunity decisions that result from the trial court actions.
CRC student attorneys Kate Berry, Nicole May, and Mariah Melena won their compassionate release motion for their client, who was granted early release from federal custody in June 2023. The client was sentenced a few years ago to 120 months of imprisonment for a nonviolent drug distribution offense. She was one of many survivors of institutional sexual violence at a federal prison, FCI Dublin in California, where she was sexually abused by a corrections officer of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This was the basis of the CRC’s motion, as new federal sentencing guidelines permit motions for early release or sentence reduction for victims of institutional sexual violence. The CRC began representing the client in late summer 2022 and the student attorneys filed their motion in mid-May. Their client had about half of her sentence left to serve, meaning that the students’ efforts saved her about six years of prison time.
The CRC is excited to welcome Miriam Kerler, our newest Christopher N. Lasch Clinical Teaching Fellow, who joined us in July. Prior to her fellowship, Kerler represented clients in special education, disability discrimination, employment discrimination, Title IX and juvenile defense matters. In 2023, Kerler was awarded the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association Access to Justice Award for her advocacy on behalf of children with disabilities in cases brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Also joining the CRC this year is Visiting Assistant Professor Nick Lutz, a passionate advocate for the civil rights of individuals against governmental and institutional abuses of power. Prior to joining DU, Professor Lutz spent many years working for a private civil rights firm in Denver, where he had the opportunity to seek justice for the deaths of civilians at the hands of law enforcement, and to represent other clients who were victims of excessive force in correctional facilities, sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace or retaliation for their protected First Amendment activity.
Lutz has served on the Executive Council of the Colorado Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division, as well as the board of the University of Denver's Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD). Prior to joining DU, he spent many years working for a private civil rights firm in Denver.
CRC Faculty Highlights
Professor Laura Rovner
“Understanding Conditions and Advocating for Your Death-Sentenced Clients,” Federal Capital Habeas Project, 2023 Annual Conference, Atlanta, GA (May 2023).
“Legal Clinics and Academic Freedom,” Global Alliance for Justice Education (GAJE) 11th Worldwide Conference on Justice Education, Stellenbosch University Faculty of Law, Stellenbosch, South Africa (December 2022).
“Challenges to Resilience for Students Representing Incarcerated Clients,” GAJE 11th Worldwide Conference on Justice Education, Stellenbosch University Faculty of Law, Stellenbosch, South Africa (December 2022).
Visiting Assistant Professor Nick Lutz
“Civil Rights Litigation,” Faculty of Federal Advocates, Denver, CO (July 2022).