District attorney candidate Braden Angel talks restorative justice, high-profile cases and Latinx outreach
Five questions for 5th Judicial District candidate heading into Tuesday’s Democratic primary
Braden Angel grew up in Columbus, Ohio, but he’s called Eagle County home since 2007 when he went to work for the 5th Judicial District as an intern. He spent nearly six years working under former DA Mark Hurlbert, becoming a deputy district attorney and leading the Lake County office for a year before leaving office in 2012 to join a private firm, then starting his own private practice in 2015.
His campaign for district attorney has focused on community outreach, especially in underrepresented communities, expanded restorative justice programs and treatment, not incarceration, for those struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. He has also said that he will create a more diverse outfit of prosecutors and reduce turnover in the office.
Angel, 39, who lives in EagleVail, is currently the municipal prosecutor in the town of Blue River near Breckenridge and in private practice. His opponent in the June 30 primary is Heidi McCollum, of Eagle, who has been the assistant district attorney in 5th Judicial District for the last seven years.
Whoever wins the primary looks all but certain to be the next DA in the sprawling 5th Judicial District that encompasses Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties since no Republican entered the field for the primary and the party cannot appoint one for the general election. A write-in candidate or an independent candidate could still emerge before the general election in November.
The Vail Daily caught up with Angel recently to ask questions that McCollum also answered in a previous Q&A.
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When asked about restorative justice, and an example from his career where the outcomes in a case were transformational for the accused, Angel cited his work with minors in the juvenile diversion program when he was a deputy DA.
“In a lot of cases you see a transformation on behalf of the juvenile who’s committed an offense and also the person who may have been involved in that offense and that’s, in a lot of cases, bullying,” he said. “So there are many examples where you’ll see someone take responsibility for their actions and participate in any classes and restorative justice programs that they may need. If there’s substance abuse involved, then we can look into that as well as behavioral health issues with more resources that we do have in the county.”
Angel said restorative justice is about accountability and working toward change for everyone involved in the process.
“I think that it’s very important for the victim of that case, as well, to see that those issues are being addressed and that they do have support from the community, from the DA’s office, from law enforcement for the schools,” he said. “I have actually seen kids who were in a fight, whether it was a bullying situation or just an altercation that folks had in school, and I’ve seen it with females and males, where, you know, two years later I would see them palling around and they’re good friends.”
When asked about setting priorities for his office, Angel, like McCollum, pointed out that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all philosophy for the district, given the differences of the communities.
In the resort communities of Eagle and Summit County, Angel said that there’s a higher level of encounters with law enforcement based on drug and alcohol abuse that has to do a lot with transient populations and tourism.
In each community, he said special attention needs to be placed on the crimes that “we’re seeing come through more frequently,” he said.
That means for locals who are dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues, the priority needs to be on treatment options locally.
For tourists who get into legal trouble while visiting, Angel said it’s a different scenario.
“You’re looking at trying to find programs that would satisfy the requirements here but they’re not going to be in Colorado,” he said.
When asked if he would you have convened a grand jury and pursued a petty theft charge against the Eagle County sheriff, as outgoing DA Bruce Brown did, Angel answered with a resounding “no.”
“I would’ve brought in a special prosecutor long before it ever had gone to the grand jury,” he said. “I would have made sure that there was an independent agency who was looking at that because I do not think that it’s appropriate for the DA to bring that to the to the grand jury for levying charges.”
Angel said that the end result of the case, which centered on how money was being spent from a county fund containing money seized by the Sheriff’s Office, was a lot of bad feelings and wasted taxpayer money. The charge was eventually dropped when a special prosecutor said he could not prove the charge.
“I think the only thing that happened out of that entire scenario was to develop bad feelings between one of our law enforcement agencies and the DA’s office,” Angel said. “I think it’s of crucial importance that the DA’s office have a close relationship with all of our law enforcement agencies. And even if you’re not getting along with everything, if you don’t agree to all the decisions that are being made in that office, you still have to put every effort you have to work together and work constructively with that office. And I think that by doing that, it does nothing but compromise the ability for those agencies to work together.”
When asked how he would build better relationships with the Latinx community and lessen the stigma that exists about working with law enforcement, Angel said developing lines of communication with underrepresented communities “is the very first thing that we have to do as an organization.”
“This has been a cornerstone of my campaign,” he said. “I have leaders from our Latinx community who are involved with my campaign who I discuss policy with on a regular basis and these include behavioral health and and health care workers as well as immigration attorneys.”
Most important in those conversations is listening and not pushing an agenda, Angel said.
“We need to be participating in community functions,” he said. “We need to be helping bring presentations not only to our schools, which I have a history of doing in both Summit and Eagle County, but also participating in functions and presentations and gatherings that are going on in our Latinx community … I want us to have a face in the community.”
He said, as district attorney, he’d require his staff to have a certain amount of hours each month doing community outreach. That visibility in the community, he said, opens doors for victims to feel comfortable coming forward and working with the DA’s office.
“Really, the outreach that we have to our community, it’s an upstream approach to make sure that we’re addressing problems within our communities so that those problems don’t get aggravated,” he said. “We can have a system that prioritizes treatment over any sort of incarceration.”
Lastly, Angel was asked about two cases that his opponent prosecuted that drew strong public opinions, starting with the couple who started the Lake Christine Fire. All told, the blaze started at the Basalt shooting range destroyed three homes, burned more than 12,500 acres and impacted thousands of Roaring Fork Valley residents due to evacuations and months-long poor air quality.
Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, who were convicted of starting the fire, pleaded guilty to setting fire to woods or prairie, a class two misdemeanor. Three charges of felony arson were dismissed by the DA’s office. Miller and Marcus were each sentenced to 45 days in jail, 1,500 hours of use public service, $100,000 in restitution and five years of probation.
Angel said, not being privy to all the information the district attorney’s office had, that it was difficult for him to answer if the punishment fit the crime.
“I think that the aspect of community service is a wise decision,” he said. “However, I do think that it would have, in my opinion, made sense to look at a sentence with a more punitive aspect to it.”
An example needed to be made in the cases of both individuals, he said.
“That is behavior that has to be deterred and part of when you’re doing a punitive sentence is that deterrence factor,” he said. “I think the fact that they were using tracer rounds is beyond negligent and reckless. While I can’t say that these two individuals are going to go out and start another fire, I do think that it needs to be impressed upon other individuals that if you’re going to go out and you’re going to be reckless and you’re going to engage in behaviors that can cause millions of dollars in damage … I think that there should be a sentence that is adequate in deterring anybody else from thinking it’s a good idea to go out and start shooting dangerous ammunition when we’ve got fire danger.”
Angel was also asked about the case of a woman who was found in a dumpster in Vail who claimed her ex-husband had assaulted her, abducted her and left her there. The ensuing investigation took up considerable public resources with investigators and prosecutors concluding that the woman made up the story, resulting in four charges, two of them felonies. Following an emotional eight-day trial, the jury acquitted the woman on all charges.
Angel, again, stated that he only followed the case, and wasn’t privy to all the information that McCollum had as a prosecutor. But given what he knew about the case, he said he likely wouldn’t have pushed to bring the case to trial.
“First and foremost, I think that when you do prosecute an alleged victim, it has a chilling effect on other victims who may have come forward but will not because they have a fear of what may happen to them and they’re accused of lying,” he said. “So I think that’s a public policy issue where you need to look at what the greater good is for our community … it was, quite frankly, a false report. It absolutely did use resources in our community. However, I think that the downside of that is that you’re going to have people who are in very bad situations who are more afraid than they may be to speak out anyway. And there are a lot of reasons why people don’t speak out.”
Angel said there could have been other alternatives to prosecution in the case.
“I don’t have any inside knowledge about what was going on in this person’s mind or what they were dealing with or any of the parties that were really intimately involved,” he said. “However, it very much appears to me that there is a behavioral health aspect to this case. To me, it would be unfathomable for there not to be. And like I’ve said before, I will have an office focused on treatment over incarceration in appropriate circumstances.”