No Compensation: Wrongfully Convicted Man Can’t Sue Police Who Helped To Put Him Behind Bars

Matt Stroud

These cases pop up every now and then – those involving a person who was put in prison under false pretenses, who tried to sue after an exoneration, and who then came up empty in front of a judge. From today’s Courthouse News Service:

A black man jailed for 9 1/2 months for a murder he did not commit cannot sue police, though video showed the criminal was 6 inches taller than he, a federal judge ruled.

Tahmir Craig sued Delaware County, the city of Chester, Pa. and four police officers in Philadelphia Federal Court, alleging false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.

Devon Williams was murdered on May 28, 2012, in Chester.

A witness told police he saw a black man run away, wearing a white T-shirt and khaki pants, but gave no height or weight information.

Three days later, an unidentified person told (nonparty) Officer Mark Barag that the day before the murder, Williams had chased with a gun a drug dealer called Diddy,” who retaliated by getting another dealer from Delaware shoot him, according to U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage’s ruling.

Barag gave this information to defendants Capt. Anita Amaro, Lt. Joseph Ryan and Dets. Nelson Collins and Michael Jay, but they failed to pursue it, Craig claimed.

Collins and Jay gave a still from a nearby store’s video surveillance of the shooting to local newspapers and TV stations, which Craig acknowledged concurred with the witness’s description.

Within days four sources - an anonymous one; Mahoummad Zeinulaeewyn, the owner of a store across from Craig’s home; Kerie Hahn, the victim’s girlfriend; and Lee Jackson, who had known Craig for more than 20 years - identified the shooter as Craig, the detectives said, according to Judge Savage’s ruling.

Collins and Jay never asked anyone to describe Craig’s height and build, but applied for a warrant to arrest him on June 2, 2012, Craig claimed.

Two days later, Craig surrendered and was charged with first- and third-degree murder, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, possession of an instrument of crime and carrying a firearm without a license. He was held without bail at Delaware County Prison.

Days after Craig’s height was measured, on March 12, 2013, the FBI reported that the person in the video was approximately 5-foot-11 1/2 - 6 inches taller than Craig.

Craig was released on March 21 this year, after 9 1/2 months in prison.

He sued, claiming the defendants failed to take basic required investigative steps” to establish probable cause, such as to reasonably interview witnesses readily available, investigate basic evidence, or otherwise inquire if the plaintiff committed the crimes he was charged with” before arresting and detaining him.

Savage awarded the defendants summary judgment.

Having the positive identifications from two witnesses, the video footage, the victim’s girlfriend’s account of the recent altercation between the victim and Craig, the detectives were not required to investigate further before presenting these facts to the district attorney for approval of an application for an arrest warrant and to a magistrate judge to make a probable cause determination,” Savage ruled.

Significantly, the magisterial district judge had the opportunity to visually compare the person in the video footage of the shooting with Craig, who was sitting before him.”

Savage tossed Craig’s claim that the assistant district attorney withheld information about another suspect. The assistant district attorney is not a defendant in this case. Nor is there any claim that she acted in concert with any of the defendants prior to his arrest and detention,” Savage wrote.

Absent a constitutional violation, Collins and Jay are immune from suit, the ruling states.

Because the detectives believed they had probable cause for an arrest and they did not misrepresent or omit material facts in their affidavit, they were entitled to rely on a neutral magistrate’s independent determination of probable cause,” Savage wrote. Accordingly, they are protected by qualified immunity.”

The message there being: you can be sued for being dishonest, but not dumb or diluted or blatantly wrong. Full decision here.

Matt Stroud is a former Innocence Network investigator who now covers the U.S. legal system, in all its glory and ugliness, as a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ssttrroouudd. Email him at stroudjournalism<at>
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