LA Police Liable for Withholding Evidence of Innocence

A federal appeals court upheld a $106,000 civil rights verdict against the Los Angeles Police Department and two detectives who left an innocent man in jail 27 months after they failed to disclose evidence another man committed the charged robberies.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals withheld, “with deliberate indifference,” evidence that Michael Walker was guilty of a series of demand-note robberies of small retail businesses in Los Angeles in 2005.

The ruling recognizes a constitutional rule that police officers may be liable for the prolonged detention that results when officers fail to deliver material information of help to the appropriate authorities.

Walker, who has since died, spent 27 months jailed awaiting trial before charges were dropped.

Investigating detectives Steven Moody and Robert Pulido, knew before Walker was bound over for trial that additional demand-note robberies with the same distinctive style were perpetrated in the same neighborhood after Walker was arrested, according to the court.

Pulido also knew another man, Stanley Smith, had confessed to some of those later crimes, after Walker’s arrest and that the robberies stopped with Smith’s arrest.

Moody and Pulido never disclosed this to Walker’s defense, but instead falsely asserted in police reports written by Moody and approved by Pulido that the demand-note crimes stopped with Walker’s arrest, the court said.

After months of unanswered discovery requests, Walker’s lawyer finally learned of Smith’s arrest and conviction and that Smith’s fingerprints were found at the scene of one of the robberies attributed to Walker.  The prosecution case against Walker was then dropped and a California court declared him factually innocent, after he spent two years in jail.

Walker filed a civil rights violation claim and won a jury award of $106,000 plus attorney fees.  Moody and Pulido challenged jury instructions in that trial.

The appeals court emphasized it was making a narrow constitutional rule.  It is restricted to detentions of “unusual length, caused by the investigating officers’ failure to disclose highly significant exculpatory evidence to prosecutors and 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 opinion was written by Judge Marsha Berzon and joined by Judge Kim Wardlaw and visiting U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte of San Jose

Case:  Tatum v. Moody, No. 10-55692


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