Supreme Court permits LAPD to be sued for concealing evidence

Court puts police on notice they may be sued if they have deliberately hidden information

The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand a civil jury verdict against two Los Angeles police detectives for concealing evidence that kept an innocent man in jail for 27 months awaiting trial.

The justices turned down an appeal Monday from the Los Angeles city attorney who contended that because the innocent man was freed before his trial, the police officers could not be sued for withholding evidence.

The outcome puts police on notice that they may be sued if they have deliberately hidden information that clearly reveals a suspect is being wrongly held.

Michael Walker, who is now deceased, was standing in a store in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles in August 2005 when a store clerk thought he looked like the middle-aged black man who had robbed the store a few days before.

Police were called and Walker was arrested. He agreed to be interviewed and have his belongings searched.

No evidence was found to link him to the robbery, but the detectives saw him as the prime suspect in more than a dozen similar robberies in the area. Each time, the thief gave a cashier a handwritten note demanding money. Usually, the note misspelled the word "start" and threatened to "strat shooting."

While Walker denied the charges, two detectives -- Steven Moody and Robert Pulido -- said he should be held in jail while the investigation continued. To justify his detention and $1-million bail, they filed a report a month later telling prosecutors in bold print, "Since the arrest of Walker, the crime spree caused by the 'Demand Note Robber' has ceased."

That was not true. Two days after his arrest, a black male robbed the Golden Bird restaurant after presenting a note to the cashier. Later the same day, a Burger King was robbed the same way. The notes included the botched spelling of the word "start."

The detectives later testified they were aware of the subsequent robberies but did not tell prosecutors. When attorneys representing Walker learned that his fingerprints were not found at the store where he was arrested, they asked the LAPD for information on other robberies. The request was turned down on the grounds it would be too much of a burden.

Later, a judge ordered the information to be disclosed. Then, the attorneys learned another black man had been arrested in mid-September when fleeing from a store robbery. And his fingerprints were found at the scene of the store where Walker had been arrested.

When prosecutors learned of this, the charges against Walker were dropped and, after 27 months, he was released. A judge later pronounced him innocent of the crimes.

He sued the LAPD and its detectives, contending they violated his constitutional right against being deprived of liberty without due process of law. A jury agreed and awarded him $106,000 in compensation.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict in September and ruled the Constitution protects suspects from "prolonged" pre-trial detention when the police conceal evidence that would have demonstrated their innocence.

The city attorney's office in February asked the Supreme Court to review the decision on the grounds that past constitutional rulings involving withheld evidence rested on the right to a "fair trial," not an arrest or a pre-trial detention.

But without comment or a dissent, the high court denied the appeal in Moody vs. Tatum. Mary Tatum is the administrator of Walker's estate.

Walker, who died in 2011 of alcohol-related problems, was an ex-felon and alcoholic living on the streets, his lawyer told The Times last year.

John C. Burton, who represented Walker in the civil rights case, said Walker's health deteriorated after his release from jail.

Burton said the jury award, which did not include any punitive damages, was relatively low because Walker was poor and could not show he suffered major economic losses while in jail.

The award is expected to be inherited by his mother. 

Twitter: @DavidGSavage

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


10:30 a.m.: This article has been updated with background information about Michael Walker.

This article was originally published at 7:04 a.m.