On July 22, 2014, a man who spent 17 days in jail for a false rape accusation had his lawsuit against the Sheriff's office dismissed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court upheld the summary judgment order of the U.S. District Court for Nebraska, which held that the faulty police investigation did not amount to a constitutional violation.
The case began in the early morning hours of November 24, 2011, when Jennifer Valenta reported she was raped. Officer's from the Gage County Sheriff's Office met Valenta at the hospital and took her story. Valenta said her assailant was a man named "Elliot," who she had met only a few days earlier.
"Elliot" was Elliot Hawkins, who told the police that he had met Valenta through her sister, and the Valenta agreed to perform sex acts for Hawkins for money.
Valenta refused to complete a rape kit after she says she was told too much time had passed for the kit to be effective. Officers then had Valenta call Hawkins to try to elicit a confession from him. Hawkins only admitted they were together that night, but denied the rape and Valenta's accusation that three other men were present. Valenta then provided the police with photos of her vaginal area purporting to show injuries she suffered during the rape.
Five days after the alleged rape, police arrested Hawkins. Further investigation continued after Hawkins' arrest, which revealed that Valenta's injuries were not consistent with her story and the physical evidence, no other men were present at the scene, and that Valenta had called Hawkins several times after the alleged rape.
After 17 days in jail, Hawkins was released on personal recognizance. Police then confronted Valenta with her inconsistencies and other scientific evidence. Valenta finally admitted the sex with Hawkins was consensual and no other men were present. Hawkins then sought an apology from the Sheriff's office, to which an investigator replied that "he wasn't done with [Hawkins] yet."
Hawkins sued Gage County and several sheriffs’ deputies, alleging they violated his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights by "intentionally failing to investigate leads which would demonstrate [his] innocence," and by omitting material facts from the arrest warrant affidavit.
The district court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment, finding Hawkins' allegations did not show a constitutional violation. Hawkins appealed.
The Eighth Circuit upheld the ruling of the district court, holding that "false accusations of sexual assault create a difficult situation for police." The court said that although Hawkins "points to evidence and clues he believes the officers should have utilized sooner and would have more quickly established the truth; the due process clause does not require a perfect investigation."
The appellate court went on to praise the investigators for their "evenhandedness" in continuing to investigate and pursue leads which exonerated Hawkins.
Finding there was no evidence officers purposely ignored evidence of Hawkins' innocence, nor was there "systemic pressure" to implicate Hawkins in the face of evidence to the contrary, the investigation and detention were "neither reckless or conscience-shocking," wrote the court.
The court also held that Hawkins failed to show that the police omitted material facts from the arrest warrant affidavit, as none of the information was "critical to the determination of probable cause."
"While in hindsight, the red flags in Valenta's lies become evident, Hawkins has not shown any omissions which ... can be deemed reckless."
After the charges against Hawkins were dropped, prosecutors charged Valenta for falsely reporting the rape allegation.
See: Hawkins v. Gage County, Nebraska, et al., No. 13-3107 (8th Cir. 2014).
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Related legal case
Hawkins v. Gage County
|Nebraska, et al., No. 13-3107 (8th Cir. 2014)
|Court of Appeals