$3.5M wrongful arrest award against Detroit cop reversed

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week overturned a $3.5 million jury verdict awarded to a Harper Woods man after he was mistakenly arrested by Detroit Police and detained for 15 days. 

The award in 2018 was thought to be the largest for a wrongful arrest case in Michigan history.

The Detroit Fugitive Apprehension Team arrested Marvin Seales at a Warren food processing plant where he worked in January 2012. They were looking for Roderick Siner, who went by an alias of "Marvin Seals," in connection with a drive-by shooting. 

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

Seales sued the city of Detroit, Wayne County and Officer Thomas Zberkot, one of the officers who arrested him. But only Zberkot remained as the lone defendant in the case when it went to trial in 2018. A jury in U.S. District Court awarded Seales the $3.5 million verdict for wrongful detention. 

Earlier the district court had dismissed Seales' case against the city and Seales voluntarily dismissed his claims against Wayne County, where he was jailed.

In last week's decision, the Court of Appeals judges decided to reverse the award, finding that Zberkot only handled Seales case for about three hours and that there was probable cause for the arrest, given the similarities between the two men.

"Seales offers no good explanation why Officer Zberkot bears responsibility for his detention for the next two days (in DPD lockup) or for his time in the county jail for thirteen days after that," the opinion reads. "Seales did not communicate with Officer Zberkot again, and neither did his jailers during that period."

"He sued the wrong man. That does not seem right — and maybe it isn’t. But the key failings in this case of mistaken identities relate to the Wayne County jail and the people who detained him there. Unless or until Seales sues the right people or the right government, there is little we can do."

Seales said he told Zberkot “like, 20 times” he was innocent and also to check his wallet for his ID to prove it. According to the case, Zberkot checked his ID but said it could be fake.

After spending two nights at the Detroit precinct, he was arraigned and eventually told a judge that he was "Roderick Siner" because he had already been sent to the back of the line when he told the judge his name was Seales. He filed a grievance with the Wayne County jail after being transferred there but didn't get released until his preliminary examination, when the victim told prosecutors they had the wrong man. 

An email to Seales' attorney Stephanie Arndt, with Geoffrey Fieger's law firm, wasn't immediately returned Monday afternoon. Detroit's Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia said the decision "restores balance to a case which had gone off the rails."

"Where the wrong man is arrested and detained, the authorities may have some explaining to do; however, a $3.5 million judgment against an officer who had custody for only two hours and 50 minutes is a wayward result," Garcia said in a written statement. 

The city of Detroit, as a part of its collective bargaining agreement with police officers, in most cases agrees to defend officers and pay their court judgments. 

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 filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming he'd been falsely arrested for the 2010 shooting. The suit was dismissed in 2017.

Seales' lengthy court case was put on hold in 2013 when the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, and resumed in 2015.