The ride home in a police cruiser should have been the end of an unpleasant night for a 36-year-old woman who had checked herself into a hospital to be treated for intoxication and chronic alcohol abuse. She had been sent home in August 2017 after medical staff caught her trying to steal supplies from the emergency room, and the hospital agreed not to pursue criminal charges if the responding police officer escorted her home safely.
On the way to the woman’s house in the Denver area, then-Westminster police officer Curtis Lee Arganbright pulled over on a secluded stretch of gravel road near McKay Lake in Broomfield, Colorado. According to state court records, the police officer forced the woman out of the car and told her to pull her pants down, KDVR reported. He then handcuffed his passenger and “forced the woman to engage in sex acts” on the side of the road, law enforcement officials said last year.
“The alleged conduct described in this arrest sickens my soul,” Westminster police chief Tim Carlson said at a news conference shortly after Arganbright turned himself in on Aug. 28, 2017. “That it describes the conduct of an on-duty police officer of my department has left me numb.”
But court records show Arganbright, who pleaded guilty last October to two misdemeanors related to the alleged sexual assault, was sentenced to only 90 days in jail and four years probation for the on-duty incident. The 41-year-old was fired, and had to register as a sex offender and attend a sex offender treatment program.
Now, in a rare move, federal prosecutors have revived the case. On Monday, the Justice Department filed a civil rights charge against the former police officer, who could face up to 10 years in a federal prison if he is convicted. The federal case reopens an investigation that has deeply troubled local law enforcement officials and left critics disheartened with the justice system.
“Arganbright chose this victim because she was vulnerable,” prosecutor Trevor Moritzky told the court during a sentencing hearing last fall.
After the assault, Arganbright allegedly told the woman, who has not been identified publicly, she “better not tell anybody about this,” KDVR reported. When he dropped her off at her house, the officer gave the victim his business card and told her to “call him” sometime, according to the TV station.
The police officer initially faced three felony charges for forcible sexual assault, false imprisonment and sexual assault through a position of authority. Those charges were reduced to misdemeanor unlawful sexual contact and official misconduct in 2018 as a result of the plea deal, according to court records.
The victim was “physically incapable” of attending the sentencing hearing, the district attorney’s office said in a statement. Her mother testified at the hearing in her place. She told the judge her daughter suffered “extreme PTSD” after she was “brutally raped” by the Westminster officer.
Prosecutors said Arganbright blamed the victim for the encounter. His lawyer did not immediately return a request for comment late Monday.
The new charge against Arganbright from the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Colorado comes after the FBI filed a search warrant in June to obtain the handcuffs, uniform, and duty belt Arganbright wore the night he drove the woman home, 9News reported.
“Westminster Police Officer Curtis Arganbright has been charged with violating a woman’s civil rights by having nonconsensual sex with her while she was in his police custody,” U.S. Attorney Jason R. Dunn said in a statement Monday.
Shocking, sexual assaults by law enforcement officers are not unprecedented. In 2016, Researchers at Bowling Green State University attempted to track how many police officers were arrested for sex crimes between 2005 and 2013, and found at least 422 rapes and hundreds of lesser sex crimes reported during that time period. The study concluded that “serious cases of police sexual violence are not isolated events.”
Arganbright had been an officer with the Westminster Police Department since December 2013 and had risen to a senior-level position. The police chief said the department immediately launched a “comprehensive review” of every instance involving contact between him and a member of the public in his nearly four years with the department.
“Our police department has been rocked to its core,” Carlson said in 2017 at a news conference. “The conduct alleged here can never be tolerated and it can never be repeated.”
Arganbright waived his right to an indictment at a hearing in federal court Monday.