Wrongful arrest results in $3.5 million lawsuit payout

George Hunter
The Detroit News
A camera is seen here in the windshield of a Detroit police car.

A jury in U.S. District Court has awarded a Harper Woods man $3.5 million nearly six years after he was mistakenly arrested by Detroit police in connection with a drive-by shooting. 

The payout to 43-year-old Marvin Seales is thought to be the largest award for a wrongful arrest case in Michigan history.

Seales' lawsuit was filed in 2012 but the city's bankruptcy and numerous appeals stalled the case. 

On Friday, following a four-day trial, an eight-member jury took less than two hours to deliberate before unanimously awarding Seales $3.5 million — which could increase by $1 million if the judge awards attorney fees to the plaintiff.

"It was a gross injustice," Seales' attorney James Harrington said of what happened to his client.

Seales' ordeal began Jan. 18, 2012, when members of the Detroit Fugitive Apprehension Team arrested him at his job at Reinhart Food Service in Warren, in connection with a 2010 drive-by shooting. 

Police insisted Seales was using a fake identification card, and that his real name was Roderick Siner, the man investigators thought was responsible for the shooting. One of the aliases Siner was known to use was "Marvin Seals."

Seales, who lost his job, repeatedly told the officers they had nabbed the wrong man, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in April 2012.

Seales was charged with assault with intent to commit murder. He sat in the Wayne County Jail for 15 days before his Feb. 1, 2012, preliminary examination. During the hearing, the victim got a look at Seales and told prosecutors he wasn't the shooter.

The lawsuit accused arresting officer Tom Zberkot and Wayne County Jail staff of failing to look at an available mugshot of Siner, which attorneys said would have shown Seales did not resemble the man police were seeking.

"At the time of Marvin Seales' arrest, a mugshot and further identification of Roderick Siner was available to ... Zberkot," the lawsuit said, adding that Wayne County Jail officials also had access to the mugshot, but did not look at it.

After Seales was released, Siner was arrested in July 2012 and charged with assault with intent to commit murder. The charges were later dismissed, and in 2015, Siner — who at the time was on probation in Alabama for an unrelated crime — filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming he'd been falsely arrested for the 2010 shooting. The suit was dismissed last year.

Seales' lawsuit has taken several twists and turns. When the city declared bankruptcy in July 2013, the suit was stayed. It was reopened in 2015, and the city filed several appeals.

Zberkot argued during one appeal: "At the time it was reasonable to conclude that (Seales) was the person identified in the warrant” and that the arrest “was not an unreasonable seizure rising to the level of a civil rights violation.”

In January, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Seales' lawsuit could proceed.

"There is no evidence that the officers made any attempt to verify Seales' identity," the three 6th Circuit judges wrote in their opinion. "Nothing suggests that the officers checked Seales' fingerprints, photographs or biographical information against the information that they had on Siner.

"It appears that they failed to confirm Seales' identity, even though simple identification procedures would have revealed the mistake," the appellate judges wrote. 

After the case finally went to trial, Judge Gershwin Drain declared a mistrial on the second day because Zberkot had provided "improper testimony." A second jury was then impaneled. 

The jury awarded Seales $750,000 because his Fourth Amendment rights were violated; $500,000 for the wrongful imprisonment; $250,000 for the false arrest; $500,000 for gross negligence; and $1.5 million in punitive damages. 

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN