By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
A citizen of Washington who was falsely accused and incarcerated for an alleged arson received a one hundred thousand dollar settlement in exchange for dismissal of her Section 1983 case against the investigating officer who withheld exculpable evidence from her defense, including information identifying a possible suspect.
The sixty-six-year-old Plaintiff was held in jail for a month and subjected to eight months of house arrest after being charged with Arson in the First Degree after a fire at a Dollar Tree Store in Kent.
Apparently to the investigating officer it was a righteous case that a sixty-six year old disabled woman with no criminal history was an arsonist but that information from another investigator who received a tip the day of the fire that a gang-banger and convicted arsonist with multiple prior convictions had bragged that he torched the store as a diversion to cover his shoplifting was not worthwhile enough to provide the prosecutor’s office or her defense.
Had it not been for the efforts of her criminal defense attorney, her potential legal jeopardy could have become much worse.
According to the her civil complaint filed in the Western District of Washington, the sixty-six-year-old was shopping at the Dollar Tree store on Pacific Highway South in Kent, Washington on November 13th, 2016. A long-time and frequent customer, she was known to experienced staff as a “trouble-free customer.” That day she was shopping for food, and cleaning supplies as well as toys and coloring supplies for her grandchildren and the children of friends of whom she hosted.
While browsing at the store, she noticed a fire started inside and alerted staff to it. She telephoned 911 at 2:41:29 p.m., within one and a half minutes of the initial fire report by a store employee. She reported smoke was filling the inside of the business from the back room, she did not know what was burning and saw no flames but noted that staff were evacuating the store.
After fire and police services arrived investigators began interviewing witnesses and staff. One newly hired employee, (Civil Defendant Employee) stated to the Kent Police Arson Investigator that Plaintiff was upset about the lack of shopping carts available to customers and, due to her frustration, announced “clearly and loudly that she intended to burn down the store.” She further claimed that Plaintiff returned to the front of the store ninety seconds later to declare that the store was on fire.
Though the employee stated that there were eight or nine customers in line and specifically identified a few, the Defendant Officer made no attempt to interview or corroborate among other customers the veracity of this claim against the Plaintiff.
Later that same day, a 911 center received a call from an anonymous source claiming to know who torched the Dollar Tree store. Another Kent Police Officer called the anonymous caller back for follow-up.
The officer noted into the case file that the anonymous caller identified a local man who admitted to him that he started the fire as a distraction from what he thought was staff suspicion of his actual attempt to shoplift from the store. The caller gave the suspect’s name and that he was a dangerous gang member–a.k.a Coconut–and the location at which he was staying.
The caller gave a physical description of the actual suspect and said that he had just encountered him while he and another person picked him up on Pac Highway South.
The anonymous caller quoted the suspect as saying in the care that “I was in the Dollar Tree arguing with my wife and I thought they knew I was stealing so I lit a small fire in the back to cause a distraction and then the whole back went up.”
The caller stated he wanted his name withheld due to fear of a strong retribution.
After the call, the KPD officer documented the information in LCIC. The next day, the defendant officer reviewed the caller’s information and notes in LCIC. He telephoned the defendant employee and asked if anyone had seen someone matching the suspect. They reported they had not.
The defendant officer failed to provide his follow-up report or that taken resulting from the anonymous caller’s accusations to the King County Prosecutor’s Office with the rest of the investigation materials. In other worlds, potentially exculpatory evidence favorable to the Plaintiff was not initially provided pursuant to Brady to the prosecutor and consequently not available to Plaintiff’s attorneys until months later and then only after a direct subpoena was made to the police department.
Two weeks after the prosecutor’s office receiving the information concerning the anonymous caller and other exculpatory evidence, the state received a motion from a superior court judge dismissing the criminal case against the Plaintiff because of “Evidentiary concerns and in the interest of justice.”
In her original civil complaint, Plaintiff sought damages against the primary investigating officer, the store employee accusing her of threatening to burn the store down, five Does employed by the city and the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority, and Dollar Tree in a vicarious manner.
For their part the named employee civil defendant and Dollar Tree counter-claimed Plaintiff, demanded, among other elements, the entitlement to ten thousand dollars as damages for Plaintiff’s alleged violation of the state’s anti-SLAPP law relating to public agency reporting (RCW 4.24.510) and for attorney fees under RCW 4.84.185.
All parties later agreed to dismiss claims made by and against Dollar Tree and its employees.
In reviewing the case I felt the defense made a credible claim against plaintiff on the SLAPP charge. It is very difficult in Washington State to prevail against a reporting party in a criminal case unless there is clear evidence of malicious prosecution, malice, and false reporting. I make no conclusion as to whether the employee heard the Plaintiff state that she was going to burn the store down due to the lack of shopping carts, but I would hope there was much physical evidence to establish a person such as the Plaintiff actually started the fire and not just some idle talk that that could have actually been just a matter of horrible timing or coincidence.
Nine days ago both remaining parties dismissed their federal civil action and settled for a reported $100,000.00
By Darren Smith
Sources: 2:18-cv-01704-BJR via PACER
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