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Man Says ‘True Crime’|Show Defamed Him

CLEVELAND (CN) - A man claims the TV series "Warrant Unit" defamed him as one of "Cleveland's 25 Most Wanted Fugitives," and that of 27 "fugitives" who appeared on the episode, 11 - including him - "were not actually wanted by the police at the time of the broadcast."

Lavelle Sullins sued Raycom Media, WOIO/WUAB Cleveland, Pinpoint Media and Cuyahoga County Crime Stoppers, in Cuyahoga County Court. He claims he lost his job and visitation rights with his children because of the defamation.

Sullins claims he was defamed on Episode 17 of "the true-crime television series 'Warrant Unit' in March 2010."

"The program depicted plaintiff Lavelle Sullins as a 'fugitive' from prosecution for 'passing bad checks' and offered viewers a reward for tips that led to his arrest," the complaint states. "Sullins, however had no charges pending against him at the time Episode 17 aired. Nor was he on the run from the police. While Sullins had previously pled guilty to one count of 'passing bad checks,' he completed his sentence a full five months before Warrant Unit presented its report on him.

"The mistake concerning Sullins did not represent some isolated aberration. Of the 27 'fugitives' featured on Episode 17, 11 (including Sullins) were not actually wanted by the police at the time of the broadcast. This 40-percent error rate resulted from the defendants' defective practices in producing 'Warrant Unit.'" (Parentheses in complaint.)

Sullins adds: "'Warrant Unit' averages 56,000 in weekly viewers. The show claims that 'every case and fugitive we feature is an opportunity for [viewers] to earn a reward' for anonymous tips leading to the suspect's arrest." (Brackets in complaint.)

Sullins says Pinpoint Media gets its information from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department, but "the documents made available by the Sheriff's Department contain only the 'jacket front' from the file for each 'fugitive,' plus a photograph and 'booking information.' The defendants do not receive copies of any warrant or court order calling for the arrest of these individuals. In fact, nothing in the papers actually indicates that the alleged fugitives are wanted by the police. The defendants make this assumption simply because the Sheriff's Department included information regarding the person in question."

The March 27 broadcast of Episode 17 contained "a mug shot of Sullins ... along with his name, height and weight, and address above the words 'PASSING BAD CHECKS.' The audio narrative repeats the message: 'Lavelle Sullins, wanted for passing bad checks,'" the complaint states.

"Episode 17 case Sullins and his fellow 'fugitives' in a dangerous light: '[D]o not attempt to apprehend these people. You leave that to the professionals.'" (Brackets in complaint.)

Sullins says he inadvertently bounced a check while buying a used car in June 2006 and that he called the car lot "to try to make other arrangements for paying the $1,536, but the proprietor decided to report the incident anyway, resulting in Sullins's prosecution."

He says he "never tried to avoid arrest in connection with this incident."

"On April 30, 2009, Sullins pled guilty to one count of passing bad checks. As his sentence, the court ordered him to make full restitution of $1,536 and serve one year on probation.

"Sullins' probation terminated early, on October 15, 2009. By that time, he had paid back the $1,536. The court's docket recorded these developments.

"The defendants put Episode 17 of 'Warrant Unit' on the air 11 months after Sullins pleaded guilty to 'passing bad checks' and five months after he had completed his sentence," according to the complaint.

Sullins says he lost his job after the episode was broadcast and that the mother of his children took away his visitation rights because "she told Sullins that she did not want to 'expose the kids' to that kind of trauma."

He seeks punitive damages for defamation and privacy invasion.

He is represented by Joshua Cohen with Cohen Rosenthal and Kramer.

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