RENO - A federal jury awarded a former Carson City man $80,000 on Friday after deciding his civil rights were violated in 1997 by Carson City officials.
The lawsuit stemmed from a June 27 traffic incident in which David Webb claimed Carson City sheriff's deputies arrested him, jailed him and refused to release him for three weeks - even after deputies informed the District Attorney's Office they may have arrested the wrong man.
The U.S. District Court jury of seven women and one man contemplated Webb's complaint against Carson City for three hours before its unanimous decision. The city was held liable for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution under federal and state law, as well as abuse of process under state law.
The jury also decided sheriff's Deputy Darrin Sloan, who was the arresting officer named in the lawsuit, was not liable in the case.
"I thought the jury did the fair thing," said Robert Story, Webb's attorney. "I couldn't disagree with it."
Carson City Deputy District Attorney Mark Forsberg said he may appeal the case because it "creates a possibility that any prosecution could cause liability."
In June 1997, Carson deputies were searching for a black man who had abandoned a vehicle, leaped a fence and eluded the deputies.
Webb, a 38-year-old black man, said he was walking in the area and was arrested after he ran from deputies and hid under a car.
Webb spent three weeks in jail "for crimes he did not commit," Story said.
On July 6, 1997, Sloan wrote a letter to Deputy District Attorney Melanie Bruketta noting he received information from an identified informer that Webb wasn't the driver of the car he had stopped.
At that point, any probable cause the city had in detaining Webb evaporated, Story said. Webb was released from jail July 16, 1997, with all charges except one - eluding a peace officer - dropped. Still, it was 10 days after the city should have released him, Story said.
Story said Carson deputy district attorneys made multiple attempts to trick Webb into giving up his right to sue Carson City by offering to dismiss the final charge. He charged that Chief Deputy District Attorney Anne Langer threatened Webb and "pursued relentlessly" Webb's prosecution.
"The District Attorney's Office went to extraordinary lengths to charge him with something to avoid civil liability to the city," Story said. "The district attorneys are the government. This is the district attorney using the court, using the full power of the court, to bear down on a well-mannered, educated black man.
"This is a big deal. You don't put people in jail for the reason Carson City did. You don't keep people in jail for the reason Carson City did, and you don't prosecute them."
Webb was acquitted of the eluding charge in a trial Oct. 30, 1997.
Forsberg argued Webb was a "persistent, unrepentant liar." Story admitted inconsistencies in Webb's story but said that didn't give the grounds for violation of his civil rights.
Forsberg said the entire story was based on Webb's own account, with no other evidence to prove he was telling the truth. As an example, Forsberg said Webb's accounts of the number of officers present at his arrest varied from zero to eight.
"It's hard to lie over a long period of time and keep your story straight," Forsberg said "Mr. Webb hasn't been able to do that."
While not admissible as evidence, Forsberg said Webb spent two years in a South Dakota prison on charges including eluding a police officer. He was on probation in Carson City for domestic battery when he was arrested in 1997.
Webb, who has relocated to New England and said he is "pursuing higher education opportunities," at one point calculated his physical and emotional damage at $815,000. Story said Webb became homeless after the incident and suffered "embarrassment, humiliation, stress and anxiety" and asked the jury to award between $200,000 and $500,000.
Story successfully argued the city's deputy district attorneys were policy makers. Forsberg said absent that ruling, the verdict could have been completely different.