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Women prosecuted for theft can sue police officers who withheld, mis-stated evidence

Kimberly Sykes and Tevya Urquhart sued two Detroit police officers after they were improperly convicted of participating in an "inside-job" robbery of their employer.  The two women and a third co-worker were held at gun point while their Sprint store was robbed; afterward, one of the investigating officers became suspicious of Urquhart's hysterical behavior in the aftermath of the robbery.  Ultimately, an officer secured evidence suggesting that perhaps the third co-worker had gambled away an equivalent amount of money at the casino the following week, and this evidence was stretched into evidence, under oath, of false certainty regarding the co-worker's gambling.  The Court of Appeals overturned the plaintiffs' criminal conviction, finding that it was built of suspicions and inferences based on a false foundation, and the plaintiffs sued the officers who presented and embellished the evidence that initiated the prosecution.

The two women were awarded more than one million dollars each, primarily in compensatory damages.  The officers appealed.  They contested the amount of the verdicts and argued that the issuance of a warrant established probable cause for the plaintiff's arrests, rendering the officers immune from claims of an illegal prosecution.  They also argued that they were entitled to qualified immunity because they did not violate any clearly established civil right of the plaintiffs.

The Sixth Circuit upheld the verdicts, noting that there was ample evidence to support a malicious prosecution against one of the officers, and violation of due process claim against the other.  It also noted the very high threshold for remitting a damage award and concluded that the verdicts did not exceed "the maximum damages that the jury reasonably could have awarded" under the proofs.   Lastly, it held that the underlying proofs in the criminal action were weak and built solely on a single piece of circumstantial evidence.  It was reasonable for the jury to have concluded that the criminal prosecution would have evolved differently if the officers had not witheld exculpatory evidence and if they had not mis-stated evidence provided by the casino:  therefore the officers were not entitled to the protections of qualified immunity.

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