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Street Justice in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - Officers "at the highest ranks of the Philadelphia Police Department" sicced a throng of angry civilians on a man falsely accused of raping an 11-year-old girl, encouraging vigilantes to mete out "street justice," which they did with their fists, feet and a baseball bat, the man claims in Federal Court.

Michael Zenquis says he had nothing to do with the rape, but after "a non-specific and erroneous citizen tip," officers initiated a civilian manhunt that ended with his being pummeled in the street with improvised weapons, including lumber and a baseball bat.

Zenquis says he was arrested after being beaten, and DNA testing cleared him of the crime.

Adding insult to injury, "two of the civilians who were known to have participated in the assault received an $11,000 cash reward at a public ceremony," Zenquis' attorney said.

"It was a modern day example of shoot first, ask questions later," Jonathan Feinberg told Courthouse News in an interview. Feinberg is an attorney with Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.

Upon being cleared, police released Zenquis into the very neighborhood where he had been beaten, and where police had circulated the falsehood that he was a child rapist, Feinberg told Courthouse News.

"They released him on the streets of Kensington, and trying to get out of that neighborhood was really a terrifying experience for him," Feinberg said.

Feinberg said his client used to spend a good deal of time in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, but now "steers clear of the area because of that stigma" that lingers from the accusation.

Officers had received an unsubstantiated tip that a man nicknamed "Romeo" might have been involved in the girl's rape.

Zenquis was nicknamed "Romeo," and officers "began advising civilians in the Kensington area that plaintiff had in fact committed the rape," according to the 12-page complaint.

Officers "distributed a photograph of plaintiff to civilians and advised the civilians that they should detain plaintiff," the complaint states.

The officers "specifically advised the civilians that they should use physical force against plaintiff," according to the complaint: "(T)he clear message from the officers [was] that they would be free to assault plaintiff with impunity."

Charges against one person accused of assaulting Zenquis were dismissed, and another person made a plea deal for a reduced sentence, according to the complaint.

The man who subsequently pleaded guilty to committing the rape was arrested after he too found himself at the receiving end of a beating by an angry, police-incited mob, the complaint states. That man was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.

To top it off, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter went so far as to characterize the second assault as "a further demonstration that Philadelphians care passionately about the city, about our quality of life, and certainly about our children," according to the complaint.

A call to the Civil Rights Unit of the City's Law Department was not immediately returned.

Zenquis, 28, seeks punitive damages from the City of Philadelphia for civil rights violations.

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