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Dallas Fake Drug Cases Settle For Millions, Jury Awards Damages

by Michael Rigby

In 2001, police officers in Dallas, Texas, made 33 arrests in what has since become known as the fake drug scandal." The victims were all charged with possessing cocaine, based on supposedly positive field tests of seized substances, when in fact there was little or no trace of any illegal drug. The cocaine" turned out to be billiard chalk, or gypsum. At least 18 of those falsely arrested have settled their claims for a total of $6.5 million, and one case has resulted in a jury award of more than $400,000.

Jacinto Jesus Mejia was one of those whose lives were wrecked by Dallas police officers Mark De La Paz and Eddie Herrera. On May 22, 2001, Mejia was arrested at his auto shop by an undercover cop--lead narcotics officer De La Paz. The 39-year-old mechanic was charged with delivery of 22 kilograms of cocaine.

Mejia spent five months in jail before the charges were dismissed. In addition, his shop had no business for about two years following the arrest and his home was foreclosed, he said. Mejia further claimed that he and his family, including his two pre-teen daughters, were subjected to ridicule.

Mejia sued the City of Dallas, police chief Terrell Bolton, De La Paz, and Herrera in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Racketeering in Corrupt Organizations Act for false arrest and false imprisonment. He sought compensatory and punitive damages for loss of income, injury to business, and mental anguish.

On January 21, 2005, Mejia settled his claim in mediation for $480,000 after judge Ed Kinkeade denied the individual defendants' motions for summary judgment based on immunity. See: Mejia v. City of Dallas, USDC ND TX, Case No. 3:03-CV-352.

At the same mediation, Mejia's Dallas attorney, Tony C. Wright, settled three other cases stemming from fake drug arrests involving the same defendants. Lorenzo Escamilia settled for $435,000. During Escamilia's 4 ½ months' imprisonment his wife divorced him, moved to Mexico with their children, and remarried. Israel Pineda, who spent two days in jail, settled for $180,000. George Sifuentez spent one day in jail and settled for $120,000. Settlement total for the four plaintiffs was $1,215,000.

Another victim of the fake drug scandal, Abel Santos, was arrested by Herrera and De La Paz at his father's auto shop on July 16, 2001. Santos, 26, was charged with possessing 12 kilograms of cocaine with intent to deliver.

He spent 3 ½ months in jail before the case was dismissed, and was then deported to Mexico upon his release.

Santos sued the same defendants for false arrest and false imprisonment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claiming that no field test had been performed and that the defendants had a practice of not performing the tests and falsifying the records. Santos sought damages for past and future mental anguish, $6,500 for attorney fees in the criminal case, and lost wages. A special visa allowed him to attend the trial.

On May 20, 2005, after a 5-day trial and 4 hours of deliberation, the jury delivered a verdict for Santos. They found that De La Paz and Herrera arrested him without probable cause and that no reasonable person in the officers' position could have believed the arrest was proper, lawful, and supported by probable cause. The jury awarded Santos $406,000 in damages. Santos's Dallas attorney, Don A. Tittle, said that with attorney's fees the judgment is expected to be at least $500,000. See: Santos v. De La Paz, USDC ND TX, Case No. 3:02-CV-649-K.

Tittle noted that five current and former Dallas cops, including De La Paz, Herrera, and a supervisor, invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify at trial. Santos's case was the first arising from the fake drug scandal to go to trial. The suit originally involved 15 plaintiffs who were falsely arrested in the scandal. Represented by attorney Tittle, all but Santos settled for a combined total of $5.3 million.

Herrera and De La Paz (named 2000 Officer of the Year) were eventually charged with fabricating and tampering with evidence. Several confidential informants who worked with the rogue cops were also charged. An independent panel appointed by the city investigated the fake drug scandal and released a report in October 2004. See PLN, July 2003, p. 5 for more.

Source: VerdictSearch Texas Reporter

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Related legal cases

Mejia v. City of Dallas

Santos v. De La Paz

Escamilia, Pineda, Sifuentez v. City of Dallas