The mother of a local man who committed suicide while under pressure from law enforcement to divulge information about local drug dealers is lauding a federal judge's Aug. 6 decision to allow her lawsuit against the Missoula Police Department to go forward.
"I finally feel that someone in the system understands and has a good grasp on why I started on this path in the first place," says Juliena Darling, whose son, Colton Peterson, killed himself in 2010.
Darling says she filed her lawsuit against Missoula city and county law enforcement to raise awareness about the dangers involved with using young confidential informants to track and arrest drug dealers. "My whole focus was trying to say, 'This is wrong,'" Darling says.
When ordering Darling's case go to trial, Judge Dana Christensen noted that Peterson's suicide came less than two hours after Missoula High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force members gave him an ultimatum to name drug dealers, or, as Christensen writes, "face a lengthy prison sentence."
On July 26, 2010, law enforcement searched Peterson's home based on information that Peterson, who was a registered medical marijuana provider, was growing more cannabis than legally allowed. There was also information that he had attempted to fire a gun in a dispute with three other men. During the search, police found 15 freshly harvested marijuana plants and 14 large cannabis plants bearing maturing buds. In addition, they discovered a brass knuckle knife and a snort tube.
When Darling arrived to Peterson's apartment during the search, she told police her son had been acting erratically and that he was suicidal. Darling told law enforcement she had tried unsuccessfully to get him to seek help. She pleaded with them to take Peterson into custody and give him a mental health evaluation.
Instead of taking him to jail, court documents indicate that when Missoula Police Detective David Krueger met with Peterson on July 27, Krueger told Peterson to name local drug dealers. Within two hours of that meeting, Peterson shot himself with a rifle at the O'Brien Creek Trailhead.
Christensen found merit to Darling's claims that Krueger violated Peterson's constitutional right to due process when placing the already suicidal Peterson in an even more precarious position.
"Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, a reasonable jury could conclude that Detective Krueger's actions aggravated Colton's known risk of suicide and made him more vulnerable to the danger he already faced," Christensen wrote.
Christensen dismissed Darling's claims against other members of the drug task force, including the Missoula County Sheriff's Department. MPD representatives cited pending litigation when declining to comment for this story.
If a jury finds for Darling during the yet-to-be scheduled trial, she stands to recoup attorneys fees and damages for emotional distress.