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City May Be Liable for Igniting Street Justice

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - A man who says he was beaten by outraged neighbors after police incorrectly identified him as a child rapist can sue the city, a federal judge ruled.

Michael Zenquis, who is known in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia by the nickname Romeo, says police looked to him when an 11-year-old girl from the area was brutally raped on June 1, 2009.

The officers allegedly received an unsubstantiated tip that an individual known as Romeo was involved in the attack, so they told Kensington residents that Zenquis was the rapist.

Zenquis was arrested the same day and exonerated by a DNA test, but not before men from the neighborhood beat him severely with lumber and other improvised weapons such as a baseball bat, according to the complaint.

He says officers had distributed his photo in the neighborhood and advised civilians to use physical force.

"The citizens to whom the officer defendants spoke understood that 'the clear message from the officers [was] that they would be free to assault [Zenquis] with impunity,'" according to the court's summary of the lawsuit Zenquis filed.

After he was hit in the eye with the lumber and three men threw him to the ground, more allegedly joined in on the violence. Zenquis says he heard one woman yelling that he was a "rapist."

Officers who arrived at the scene put a stop to the fight and arrested Zenquis, but they did not investigate the assault, according to the complaint.

After police determined he was innocent of the rape, they arrested two people for the beating. One pleaded guilty and charges against the other were dropped, according to the complaint.

One day after Zenquis' beating, Jose Carrasquillo became the prime suspect in the rape and officers again urged the vigilantism, according to the complaint. After Kensington residents chased down Carrasquillo on June 2, they allegedly beat him with lumber until the police arrived.

Zenquis says Carrasquillo pleaded guilty to the rape and is serving 30 to 60 years in prison. The mayor allegedly applauded the citizens' actions as "a further demonstration that Philadelphians care passionately about the city, about our quality of life, and certainly about our children."

No criminal charges were brought against the civilians involved in Carrasquillo's capture, and indeed two later received an $11,000 award at a public ceremony, the suit states.

Philadelphia moved to dismiss Zenquis' complaint, which he amended in July 2011, but U.S. District Judge Louis Pollack refused last week.

The judge said the allegations in the complaint are "adequate to state a claim for conspiracy."

"To support the inference of an agreement among the officer defendants and the private individuals who assaulted him, Zenquis relies principally on the allegation that the private individuals had spoken to at least one or more of the individual [police] defendants, and were told ... that they should detain [Zenquis] and that they would be permitted to use force against [Zenquis]," Pollack wrote (brackets and ellipsis in original). "This is consistent with and buttressed by the allegations, earlier in the amended complaint, that at least some of the officer defendants were canvassing the Kensington neighborhood for several hours prior to the assault."

Allegations of the rewards that civilians received for detaining Carrasquillo also support the claims for municipal liability, the decision states.

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