Exonerated man loses civil lawsuit against city

Jul. 05, 2013 @ 06:09 PM

A man who spent nearly seven years in prison before being exonerated saw his civil lawsuit against the police tossed by the same judge who set him free.

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson sided with city lawyers last month in ruling that Erick Daniels, 26, can’t pursue a malicious prosecution case against police.

Hudson’s order didn’t go into details, but Senior Assistant City Attorney Kim Rehberg had previously argued that Daniels and his lawyer couldn’t prove the sort of malice necessary under state law to support their case.

There was no evidence that the lead detective had “acted out of improper motive” or lied “to sustain the charges” of robbery and burglary that led to Daniels’ imprisonment, she said a June 6 dismissal motion.

Daniel was accused in 2000, when he was just 14, of participating in a home invasion targeting Ruth Brown, a Durham Police Department evidence-room staffer.

Brown told detectives that two masked men stole more than $6,000 in cash.

She picked Daniels’ picture out of a photo lineup drawn from his middle-school yearbook, identifying him mainly on the resemblance of his eyebrows to those of one of her assailants.

Her testimony contributed to his subsequent conviction.

His appeals lawyers argued that the photo lineup was improperly suggestive. The N.C. Court of Appeals rejected that argument, but Hudson in a follow-up proceeding in 2008 sided with Daniels and ordered him freed.

When first tried, Daniels hadn’t received effective help from his lawyer, and former Assistant District Attorney Freda Black had failed to disclose evidence favorable to him, Hudson said. There was newly discovered evidence pointing to his innocence, the judge said.

Once out of prison, Daniels threatened to take the city to court unless it settled with him for $25 million. No such payment was forthcoming, so in 2011 he and lawyer Daron Satterfield filed suit.

The case unfolded in state court, invoking common-law arguments rather than the sort of civil-rights claims that typically require federal proceedings. The lawsuit targeted Black, Brown, the city, lead detective Delois West and two other police officers.

The state attorney general’s office represented Black and argued that she was immune from any suit over her actions. Satterfield last year agreed to dismiss the case against her.

That left just the city and its employees as defendants.

Rehberg argued that Daniels was four years late, under the state’s statute of limitations, in filing the lawsuit if he wanted to claim negligence and infliction of emotional distress as harms justifying payment.

The malicious-prosecution claim, she conceded, required a different answer. But she argued that Daniels couldn’t meet the multi-pronged test that judges have set as the standard for such claims.

To sustain it, Daniels and Satterfield had to show that each of their targets had played an active role in the prosecution, that each acted with malice, that there was no probable cause for authorities to believe Daniels had been involved in the crime and that the prosecution had ended in his favor.

Rehberg argued that Brown’s role in the case was exactly like that of any other crime victim, and that there was no evidence suggesting that she knew Daniels wasn’t her attacker or that she maliciously intended to do him harm.

Allowing the case against her to proceed would be a precedent that “would create civil defendants out of legions of crime victims” in prosecutions that for various reasons fall through, Rehberg said.

As for West and the other officers, there was likewise no evidence of malice, she said.