The latitude given officers in cases of false arrest is often troubling. Take the case of Adam Miller, a motorcyclist from Richland, Washington, that was recently arrested based on an officer’s false identification of Miller. An officer was looking for a black motorcycle that he claims he had clocked at 126mph multiple times throughout the day. Miller was riding a red motorcycle and exiting a parking lot when he was detained and then arrested by a Washington State Patrol trooper. Although Miller was found not guilty based on this obvious detail in traffic court, what recourse does Miller have to recover costs related to his seemingly false arrest?
A Case Of Mistaken Identity and False Arrest
Miller, writing to the MPP, describes the incident in detail:
“Back on Memorial day of this year, in Richland, Washington, I hopped on my RED 2010 VMAX for the first time in a week, and went to WINCO to rent a couple of movies. I was leaving the parking lot when a state trooper pulled up behind me and flipped on his lights. I didn’t think much of it, and pulled over across the street. I was not dressed for much more than a short ride, red t-shirt, blue jeans, helmet and boots.
He accused me of doing 126mph, and that he had clocked me multiple times throughout the day doing various illegal speeds. He claimed he had the entire area looking for me, and that I was being a menace to the holiday traffic by riding the way I was. I asked how in the world he would look in a grocery store parking lot to find me even If I was running and or speeding like this? He made it very clear the reason he knew I was there was that another officer had reported me in the parking lot.
From here I am booked and had to pay 1000 bucks to get out.
I absolutely did not do this! I never approached the speeds I was accused of.”
The Trooper Was Looking For A Black Bike, Not A Red Bike!
Miller was given a public defender, but decided to hire an attorney anyway. Upon discovery, it became apparent that Miller was falsely identified. Miller writes, “The discovery painted a much much different picture than the one this officer painted in his report. First, a state patrol vehicle had no audio and no video of anything. It wasn’t functioning.” Conveniently, technology intended to provide public accountability related to police activity was inoperable depriving Miller, and the general public, a way to corroborate some elements of the story.
Miller continues, “Second, the [other] officer he claimed called in my location doesn’t exist. In fact, the video evidence even corroborates this, given that the only other officer on scene didn’t show up till after I was in the process of being pulled over and arrested. In fact, I was damn near in cuffs by the time the second officer even showed up.
Third, this officer called out, not once but twice, a BLACK BIKE, with black helmet. Google a 2010 VMAX, and see for yourself, my bike is bone stock, no mods visual or otherwise. IT’S RED! The last call out before he arrests me, and I quote, “same bike, red shirt”.”
In traffic court, Miller prevailed. Clearly Miller was not riding a Black bike and was not the individual the WSP trooper thought he was. Miller writes, “The case has now been tried, and a not guilty verdict returned. The officer was proven to be “less than forth coming”, aka lied through his teeth.”
Despite Not Guilty Verdict, Legal Costs Threatening Financial Ruin
According to Miller, despite being found not guilty, he incurred almost $5k in legal costs and as a Veteran and current student he is near financial ruin.
“I have a spotless record minus some MINOR speeding infractions, I have never been arrested, I am a veteran of Bosnia, OEF, and OIF. I am a full time college student currently, and my budget is quite fragile, the 4500 this has cost me, not to mention the personal leg work I have done to save costs, is set to put me into financial ruin, I have less than a month before I am no longer viable financially, and that 4500 would certainly bridge a gap. This situation has caused some serious undo stress and emotional entanglement, . . . My life is being ruined by an officer who chose to act instead of think.”
Can Miller File Suit For False Arrest?
So what recourse does Miller have? He was arrested and shouldn’t have been. But it’s not that simple. Establishing that there was not reasonable suspicion to stop Miller may be difficult because it requires demonstrating that the officer specifically targeted Miller knowing that he wasn’t the individual he was looking for. Miller says, “I have had 3 different lawyers look at this case now, and all of them are of the same conclusion. “This officer lied, and this case doesn’t hold water.” I inquired of my lawyers about a civil suit, and they said that unless I can prove the officer specifically targeted me I have no case.”
According to findlaw.com, false arrest is “the claim that is most often asserted against police”. These claims are based on police violating Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizure. “If the officer had probable cause to believe the individual had committed a crime, the arrest is reasonable and the Fourth Amendment has not been violated. Police can arrest without a warrant for a felony or misdemeanor committed in their presence.”
But what about cases like Miller’s, where the information the officer relied upon turns out to be false? Or the officer is mistaken or confused? According to findlaw.com, “even if the information the officer relied upon later turns out to be false, the officer is not liable if he believed it was accurate at the time of the arrest.”
So the question in Miller’s case is, “What did the officer believe at the time of the detention and arrest?” In other words, did the officer believe that Miller was the motorcyclist that he claims he observed doing 126mph? Was he merely confused because of the black helmet? Was Miller just in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Was Miller Specifically Targeted?
On the other hand, the WSP trooper’s probable cause arguably relies on questionable foundations. Miller was riding a Red motorcycle and radio transmissions clearly prove that the trooper called in a Black bike. Maybe with this alone, the trooper still has plausible deniability. Maybe he made a mistake. But, according to Miller, other factors reveal that the trooper relied on blatantly false claims to bolster probable cause.
Remember the other trooper that allegedly called in Miller’s presence in the WINCO parking lot that, upon discovery, does not appear to exist? Or what about the fact that all of the video and radio transmissions were inoperable/not functional eliminating the opportunity for accountability? Was this trooper upset with the actions of a speeding motorcyclists earlier in the day, so much so that he targeted the first sport bike rider he saw?
The standards for establishing false arrest give so much deference to law enforcement that victims like Miller are often not given the opportunity to recover attorney fees or other damages incurred as a result of their arrests, despite being found innocent of any wrongdoing. Miller has approached 3 attorneys that all believed the trooper lied to establish probable cause. But they also believe proving the trooper targeted Miller would be difficult to establish. There ought to be an avenue for victims like Miller to recover attorney fees and expenses related to an arrest relying on the foundation of inaccurate information or an officer’s mistake, however unintentional the mistake is claimed to be. A trip to the store should not cost anyone thousands of dollars due to a mistake made by law enforcement.