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Man Says Phoenix Put Its Image Before Rights

PHOENIX (CN) - An Arizona man claims he was wrongly imprisoned for 14 months on arson charges because the Phoenix Fire Department wanted to burnish its image in the community.

In a lawsuit filed in Maricopa County Court, Carl Caples claims the City of Phoenix failed to properly train its fire investigators, and that this lapse in management has led to a series of wrongful arrests, including his own.

According to Caples, in May 2009, a fire started in the house he then lived in while he was not at home.

In the aftermath of the blaze, he says, the city assigned Captain Sam Richardson to be the lead fire investigator, despite his lack of certification.

During an interview with Caples' roommate, who was home at the time of the fire, Richardson asked a series of questions that revealed he already assumed an arson had occurred.

Caples says Richardson's presumption grew out of an alleged effort on the part of the fire department to increase the number of fire-involved crimes it could claim to have solved.

"The City of Phoenix routinely approached fire scenes with a preconceived idea of whether a fire was arson, and it reviewed the scene based on that preconceived idea, causing innocent individuals to be charged, arrested, and incarcerated based on a 'negative corpus' methodology," the lawsuit claims. "Using the widely discredited 'negative corpus' methodology, if an accidental cause of a fire cannot be established, then the fire is presumed to be arson."

Caples says Richardson did not ask any of the responding firefighters what they saw when they arrived at the residence, and instead called another fire investigator, asking him to bring the department's accelerant detection canine, Sadie, to the home.

According to Richardson, Sadie "alerted" at three areas on the patio of the home, suggesting the use of an ignitable fluid, the complaint says.

"Richardson theorized that Caples had started the fire in the rear of the residence on the patio, even though there was no evidence tying Caples to the fire," the lawsuit says.

Further, Caples claims, a venting hole cut by the responding firefighters in the northwest portion of the roof "suggested that the fire originated in the front attic area, not in the back patio."

According to the complaint, the city "established and followed a policy and custom under which its accelerant detection canine was deemed superior to the scientific laboratory results, and the city would routinely present the unconfirmed alert of the canine to a grand jury as indica of arson, even in the absence of any laboratory support, meaning there would, in those instances, be no confirmed evidence of an accelerant."

Even before the results came back from the crime lab, the fire department's arson unit claimed the fire was an arson and allowed firemen to pose for "celebratory photographs for the firefighters' personal use, such as their personal Facebook and other social media pages" at the spot where Richardson believed the fire started.

Caples was arrested for arson and endangerment, despite the absence of lab-verified evidence of accelerant use, he says. He says he was imprisoned until the Maricopa County Attorney's Office decided it would not prosecute cases investigated by either Richardson or Andes, claiming the arson unit's actions were an "utter breakdown in basic investigative techniques and procedures."

Caples seeks general damages. He is represented by Michael Poli of Poli & Ball.

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