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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Witness Pressure Could Help False Arrest Case

(CN) - A California man who was cleared of attempted murder by a jury can pursue false-arrest claims against police officers and others, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.

The federal appeals court in Pasadena found that Donald Wige's civil claims are not barred by the doctrine of issue preclusion just because a magistrate judge found probable cause to try him during a preliminary hearing.

Wige went to trial for the drive-by shooting of Carlos Torres. Prosecutors had no physical evidence implicating him in the shooting, but Torres identified Wige in a photographic lineup, according to the ruling.

California charged Wige with attempted murder, but a jury acquitted him after Torres testified that he had been pressured by detectives to finger Wige. Ryan Bellows, the lead detective on the case, denied pressuring Torres in any way.

Wige spent about 10 months in jail awaiting trial. Once out, he sued Bellows, the city of Los Angeles and others for false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.

U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow in Los Angeles granted the defendants summary judgment, finding that the magistrate's original probable cause finding prohibited Wige from "relitigating" the issue.

A three-judge appellate panel reversed Tuesday, finding that the doctrine of issue preclusion does not apply to the case because Wige "raised a 'genuine dispute' as to whether Bellows fabricated evidence at the preliminary hearing by falsely testifying that Torres had identified Wige as the shooter."

"Wige does not rely on mere speculation that Officer Bellows fabricated evidence; he relies on testimony under oath from Torres himself that the officers pressured him into making a false identification," Judge Paul Watford wrote for the panel. "That alleged fabrication plainly meets the materiality threshold for defeating summary judgment on the merits: All agree that a valid identification by Torres would support a finding of probable cause, but that without his identification probable cause would be absent."

"Having heard the conflicting evidence, he court did not decide whether Officer Bellows or Torres was telling the truth; it decided only that a reasonable jury could believe either one," he added.

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