RICHMOND, Va. — A man who was wrongly accused of trying to abduct a 10-year-old boy should be allowed to argue to a jury that statements made by the arresting officer were defamatory, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The court said Prince George County Circuit Judge James F. Dalton Jr. erred in tossing out Michael A. Lewis Jr.’s defamation claim against county police Lt. Brian A. Kei. The justices affirmed Dalton’s dismissal of malicious prosecution and false imprisonment claims against the officer, but they sent the defamation complaint back to circuit court for trial.
Lewis, a contractor, said in his complaint that he was sitting in his truck on Aug. 1, 2008, when a boy asked him for a ride home. Lewis agreed, but when the child got into the truck a neighborhood resident, Cedrick Williams, came out of his home and yelled for him to get out. Williams called 911 and said he had witnessed an abduction attempt.
Six days later, according to the complaint, Kei obtained a warrant to arrest Lewis even though he never interviewed the child, the witness or the suspect. Kei published Lewis’ photo and a notice about his arrest on the county’s website, and a television station and two newspapers ran stories about the arrest.
One article quoted Kei as saying, “I think it’s a good day since we got this guy in custody and hopefully everyone can rest a little bit easier.”
After spending 41 days in jail, Lewis was cleared when a prosecutor finally interviewed the boy. The record of Lewis’ arrest was expunged, but according to his complaint, the story about his arrest remained on the county’s website for several more months.
“That’s egregious conduct,” said Lewis’ attorney, Elliott P. Park.
Park said he is pleased that the defamation claim has been revived, but he said it was odd the justices would conclude that Williams’ 911 call alone was probable cause to arrest Lewis.
“It was a traumatic experience for our client,” Park said. “He wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”
Kei’s attorney, Robert A. Dybing, declined to comment.
Senior Justice Lawrence L. Koontz Jr. noted in the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion that Lewis accused Kei of making several false statements, including that the child was approached by Lewis and was ordered into the truck, and that a neighbor foiled the contractor’s attempt to “escape with the child.”
Kei also allegedly told a newspaper: “The more the juvenile declined, the suspect became more angry and began yelling at the juvenile.”
Koontz wrote that “a jury could find that Kei was negligent in making these statements based solely upon Williams’ 911 report without conducting any follow-up investigation.”