Man's wrongful-prosecution claim upheld by court

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of a black man who was wrongfully prosecuted by the Carson District Attorney's Office.

David Q. Webb was eventually acquitted of obstruction of justice charges filed after his June 1997 arrest. He filed suit in Reno federal court and a jury awarded him $80,000, ruling his constitutional rights were violated -- specifically his "right not to be prosecuted without probable cause."

The case began June 27, 1997, when a black man pulled over by Carson Deputy Darrin Sloan fled on foot. Dispatchers identified the owner of the vehicle as Freddy Little but, after 20 minutes of chasing the man, deputies found Webb.

Although his clothing was different, the deputies arrested Webb for traffic offenses and obstructing police officers.

Sloan told the District Attorney's office six days later he no longer believed it was Webb they had been chasing, because another officer had evidence that Little bragged about outrunning the cops on the day of the arrest.

"Despite Sloan's timely advisement, plaintiff was not released from jail until July 16," said the circuit court opinion. "Nor did the district attorney's office drop any of the charges."

Instead, Chief Deputy District Attorney Anne Langer took over prosecution and tried to get Webb to sign a waiver of civil liability in exchange for dropping the case. He refused and Langer told him she would prosecute him unless he did.

At trial, Sloan and the other deputy involved in the arrest testified Webb did nothing to interfere or obstruct them, and Webb was acquitted.

He sued over several violations of his constitutional rights. The jury exonerated Sloan but found that the District Attorney's Office violated Webb's rights by prosecuting him when he refused to waive liability.

They also ruled that Carson City has a "custom, policy or practice to falsely imprison individuals." They said Carson City "falsely imprisoned, maliciously prosecuted and committed abuse of process against plaintiff under state law."

The jury awarded him $80,000 in damages plus attorney fees totaling more than $188,000.

The federal circuit court agreed the evidence in the case was strong enough to justify the verdict and "certainly strong enough to support the jury's reasonable damages award."

But the appellate court ruled the trial judge used the wrong standard in determining attorney fees, concluding some of the hours billed were excessive. The opinion orders the district court to review and reduce the attorneys' fees.


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