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Arrest over cab-fare dispute costs Newport Beach $360,000

Newport Beach Civic Center and Park.
(Kevin Chang / Times Community News)

Newport Beach has agreed to pay $360,000 to settle a wrongful arrest suit stemming from a 2016 incident involving a declined credit card for a $16 cab ride.

The case brought by Ashley Watts began on June 26, 2016, when Watts took a taxi back to her Newport Beach apartment after drinking at a hotel, according to federal court documents. Her credit card was declined for the $16.70 charge, and the taxi driver called police to help him collect his fare.

Not long after, according to court papers, Newport Beach police Officers Christine Maroney and Monica Aguilar slammed Watts into a wall and took her to the ground after she told them they couldn’t enter her apartment and arrested her on suspicion of theft.

In an August 2019 hearing before a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Ryan Nelson questioned how the incident escalated.

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“Who in the world arrests an individual for failing to pay cab fare?” he asked Anthony Taylor, the lawyer representing the officers. “How in the world did this happen? This just seems to me to be strange at a minimum.”

Nelson said the officers should have used discretion, a sentiment reflected in the resulting filing the court released in October: “Can a declined credit card for a $16.70 cab fare result in a [federal civil rights] action? One would think not. But here we are.”

According to court documents, Maroney escorted Watts to her apartment to get cash for the driver, but she objected to their entry when Maroney and Aguilar started to follow her inside. That’s when Maroney said she would just take Watts to jail, and the two officers pushed her against a wall, kicked her legs out from under her, applied their body weights on top of her and put her in handcuffs.

Watts spent the night in jail. The Orange County district attorney filed charges, but they were dismissed.

The appeals court said the officers had no probable cause to arrest Watts because there was no evidence she had intended to defraud her driver. The city reached its settlement agreement in July.

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After being released from jail the morning after her arrest, Watts again took a cab home, although she still didn’t have any money, and she told the driver, court documents said.

“This time, however, the driver waited for Watts to return with cash payment. No police were called, and no federal lawsuit resulted.”

Davis writes for Times Community News.


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