Ninth Circuit Upholds $106,000 in Damages Plus Attorney Fees for Withheld Evidence
by Mark Wilson
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a $106,000 damage award and over $348,300 in attorney fees and costs for an innocent man’s 27-month pretrial confinement after two police detectives knowingly concealed compelling evidence of his innocence.
Between June 27 and August 15, 2005, Los Angeles Police Department detectives Robert Pulido and Steven Moody investigated thirteen “demand note” robberies. By the sixth robbery they believed a single suspect was committing the crimes. One of the robberies occurred at EB Games on August 13, 2005.
When Michael Walker entered EB Games three days later, he was arrested because a store employee thought he looked like the man who had robbed the store.
Walker, a homeless ex-felon, professed his innocence. He consented to a search of an apartment where he stored his belongings, and no evidence of any robbery was discovered. His fingerprints did not match those found at the crime scene. Nevertheless, Moody and Pulido concluded that Walker had committed all thirteen robberies.
Within days of Walker’s arrest, while he was in custody, the demand note robberies continued. The suspect’s description matched that of the suspect who had committed the other, earlier robberies.
Moody was “surprised” to hear about the continued robberies and immediately assumed the same suspect had committed all of them. He shared this theory with Pulido.
Stanley Smith was arrested after fleeing from a September 15, 2005 demand note robbery, and the robbery spree ended with his arrest. Regardless, Moody and Pulido did not alert the prosecutors in Walker’s case that the demand note robberies had continued after Walker was in custody. Rather, following Smith’s arrest, Moody wrote two reports for prosecutors in September and November 2005, falsely declaring in bold print: “Since the arrest of Walker the crime spree caused by the ‘Demand Note Robber’ has ceased.” Pulido approved both reports.
In mid-2007, Walker’s attorneys finally learned about the robberies that Smith had committed. A demand note recovered at the scene of one of Smith’s robberies shared an identical misspelling with a note in one of the robberies that Walker had been charged with, threatening that the perpetrator would “strat shooting.”
On November 26, 2007, Walker’s attorneys alerted prosecutors of Smith’s arrest and noted that Smith’s fingerprints were found at the scene of the EB Games robbery attributed to Walker. Walker’s case was dismissed the same day, ending his 27-month pretrial confinement. The trial court later entered a finding of factual innocence.
Walker filed a federal lawsuit against Moody and Pulido in 2008, alleging they had violated his constitutional rights by concealing material exculpatory evidence. The case went to trial and a jury returned a verdict for Walker, finding that Pulido and Moody failed to disclose compelling exculpatory evidence to the prosecutor and did so with deliberate indifference to, or reckless disregard for, the truth and Walker’s rights. The jury awarded $106,000 in compensatory damages.
The district court then denied the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law and awarded Walker $336,948 in attorney fees and $11,382.24 in costs. Moody and Pulido appealed. The Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, joined the National Police Accountability Project of the National Lawyers Guild in a letter to the Ninth Circuit in support of Walker’s position on appeal.
The appellate court affirmed on September 17, 2014. Moody and Pulido “affirmatively misrepresented – twice – highly material facts,” the Court of Appeals found. Further, they did not “correct the misinformation provided to the prosecutors, or provide accurate information concerning Smith’s arrest and the consequent end of the [robbery] crime spree, during the two-year period Walker remained in pretrial detention.”
“A police officer’s continuing obligation to disclose highly exculpatory evidence to the prosecutors to whom they report is widely recognized,” the Court added. However, it also emphasized “the narrowness of the constitutional rule we enforce today, which is restricted to detentions of (1) unusual length, (2) caused by the investigating officers’ failure to disclose highly significant exculpatory evidence to prosecutors, and (3) due to conduct that is culpable in that the officers understood the risks to the plaintiff’s rights from withholding the information or were completely indifferent to those risks.”
The Ninth Circuit further affirmed the attorney fee and cost award, noting that “Moody and Pulido’s appeal from the award of attorney’s fees is contingent upon their appeal of the judgment. They have not brought a particularized challenge to the calculation of the attorney’s fees awarded ... or alleged an abuse of discretion.” See: Tatum v. Moody, 768 F.3d 806 (9th Cir. 2014), petition for cert. filed.
Unfortunately, Walker will not benefit from the appellate court’s ruling or the damage award, as he had died while the case was pending. The $106,000 in damages, with interest, will go to his mother. Detectives Moody and Pulido are reportedly no longer employed by the Los Angeles Police Department.
One of the attorneys who represented Walker, John C. Burton, noted that the city had refused to settle the case – even after the jury awarded damages – and blamed Walker’s wrongful pretrial incarceration on “police culture.”
“Police culture says never, ever admit you made a mistake,” he stated.
Additional source: Los Angeles Times
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Related legal case
Tatum v. Moody
|Cite||768 F.3d 806 (9th Cir. 2014)|
|Level||Court of Appeals|
|Appeals Court Edition||F.3d|