A Los Angeles man charged in an Internet child-sex-abuse case in 2011 and held for six months before the charges were dismissed has won a $5 million civil suit against the city of Sacramento and its police department, the man’s attorney said Monday.
The jury verdict in federal court in Los Angeles came after a five-day trial in a case in which attorney Jeff Dominic Price accused the police of fabricating evidence, malicious prosecution and violating his client’s civil rights.
“I asked for $100,000 for the arrest and for the first few days in custody, and then I asked for them to award many, many times that for the rest of the incarceration,” said Price, a Santa Monica attorney who said the jury came back after about six hours with an award of $5,005,000.
Sacramento City Attorney James Sanchez said city officials disagreed with the verdict and might contest it in court.
“We are disappointed in the verdict and believe there is no reasonable basis for the size of the damage award,” Sanchez said. “We are reviewing all our options including appeal of the decision.”
Price said the case stemmed from a case of mistaken identity and actions by police that missed obvious signs there was a problem with their case.
The plaintiff, identified in court papers only as “J.N.,” was arrested after Sacramento police began an investigation into a 2011 complaint from the mother of a 12-year-old Sacramento girl who was being contacted by men on Facebook and being asked to disrobe in front of a webcam while one performed sex acts on himself.
The girl was using a laptop she had gotten for Christmas and communicating with the suspects in a “Tiny Chats” site associated with Facebook, court documents state.
One of the men had a Facebook page under the name “Pater Noster,” which is Latin for “Our Father,” court papers state.
Sacramento police Detective Heather Hendrickson ran the last name through police records and located a man with that name and a criminal history, court papers say.
Police obtained a photo of that suspect and presented it and five others in a photo lineup to the girl in March 2011. The girl pointed to the picture of the suspect and said “he is too skinny, the guy that I saw was much chunkier,” court papers say. After a few more seconds she added, “That kind of looks like him,” and Hendrickson told her to draw a circle around the picture, court papers say.
The lawsuit filed against the city said Hendrickson submitted a search warrant affidavit that omitted the fact that the girl said the suspect was “too skinny” to be the man she saw on camera.
Court papers also say Hendrickson went to the FBI for help on the case and an agent told her he would subpoena Facebook for information on the “Pater Noster” account. The FBI soon determined that the account was being logged into from a device in Vienna, Austria, but Hendrickson didn’t find that out because “she did not follow up with the FBI,” court papers say.
The suspect was arrested Aug. 15, 2011, in front of his Los Angeles home and brought to Sacramento, where he was charged with seven felony counts.
The suspect told Hendrickson he had not committed the crimes and that he was not on Facebook, the lawsuit said. Police seized his computer and later found “no Facebook account registered on the hard drive” and no evidence that there ever had been a Facebook account used on the computer, the lawsuit states.
In February 2012, the girl was brought in for an in-person lineup that included the suspect, but she did not recognize any of the men, the lawsuit said. A few days later, charges in Sacramento Superior Court were dismissed, online records show.
Price said in the lawsuit that his client “suffered pain, fright, fear, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of liberty, as well as mental, emotional and physical injuries.”
“He still has adverse effects from this because people are aware that he was charged with that offense,” Price added in a telephone interview Monday after the verdict. “He’s doing a lot better, he’s working.”
Price also said that the girl, now 17, “has been adversely affected by the whole situation,” and that the man who committed the crime has never been found.