Over and over again, the man protested: “You got the wrong guy.”
But the police didn’t listen.
They arrested him at work in front of his colleagues, hauled him off to jail and held him for 15 days believing he was someone else: a fugitive wanted for attempted murder.
Six years later, the patient man — 43-year-old Marvin Seales of Harper Woods — got his payback. On a Friday afternoon in a federal courtroom in Detroit, after just one hour and 50 minutes of deliberations, a jury awarded Seales $3.5 million for the injustice he suffered in a case of mistaken identity.
The fugitive that police were looking for had used the name “Marvin Seals” as an alias, though they arrested the real “Marvin Seales” instead and held him for attempted murder.
It was a mistake that could have and should have been avoided, the jury concluded as it delivered what’s believed to be the largest verdict for a wrongful arrest case in Michigan’s history.
“I didn’t anticipate things would go this way at all,” Seales told the Free Press in a Saturday interview. “I wasn’t expecting no trial, no judge, no jury — I didn’t think anyone was going to believe me.”
That’s because, he explained, no one believed him from the start: not the arresting police officers, the booking agents at lockup or the county jail staff — all of whom he repeatedly told the same thing.
“Y’all got the wrong guy … It’s not me.’ “
Arrested at work
The defendants in the case are the City of Detroit and Detroit Police officer Thomas Zberkot, who executed the arrest warrant that landed Seales in jail.
The incident occurred in 2012, though the lawsuit took years to resolve because of Detroit’s historic bankruptcy, which halted the case for two years until the city exited bankruptcy, and numerous appeals by the city.
The city long argued that officer Zberkot acted properly, noting police often deal with people who deny that they’re the person wanted in a warrant but who turns out being them anyway. They argued that the “It’s not me” line is very common in police work, that it’s not uncommon to arrest someone under an alias name, and that Zberkot had probable cause to arrest Seales given the information that he had at the time.
The defense also argued, though not successfully, that Seales never protested his arrest and that there was no willful or deliberate attempt by police to violate his constitutional rights.
The jury disagreed.
“The whole theme in this case is ‘Nobody listened to Marvin’ … if they just listened to him when he was in the Detroit lockup, this wouldn’t have happened,” said James Harrington of Geoffrey Feiger’s law firm, who represented Seales. “The only people who listened to him were the jurors. They were true heroes.”
Here, according to hundreds of court documents, trial transcripts, lawyers and Seales himself is what triggered the multimillion-dollar verdict.
On Jan. 18, 2012, Marvin Seales was working his technician job at the Reinhart Food Service warehouse in Warren when a team of plainclothes police officers showed up. He was in a large walk-in cooler when three officers approached him.
“They asked if I knew what this was about. I said, ‘whatever it’s about, y’all got the wrong guy.’ And they said, “Come with us, ‘ ” recalled Seales, who was escorted out of work by the officers while his supervisor and colleagues looked on. He kept quiet as they led him away.
“I was too embarrassed. I kept my head down ” he recalled.
Seales quickly learned that police were looking for a fugitive named Rodrick Siner, who was wanted for assault with intent to murder stemming from a 2010 drive-by shooting. Siner used several aliases, including ‘Marvin Seals,’ though he looked nothing like the Marvin Seales who was arrested at the food warehouse and his last name did not have a letter “e” at the end.
Among the arresting agents was Detroit Police officer Thomas Zberkot, whose job was to execute arrest warrants issued by 36th District Court. He told Seales that there was a warrant out for his arrest.
Seales protested repeatedly, telling Zberkot that he was not “Roderick Siner” and that they had the wrong individual. He gave police his wallet, which contained his Michigan photo identification card, his Social Security card and several credit cards in his name.
“They told me all my credentials could be fake,” he recalled.
Seales was initially taken to the DPD’s 3rd Precinct lockup, where he was fingerprinted and processed. There, he continued telling personnel that he was not Roderick Siner, but to no avail.
From lockup, he was transported to the Wayne County Jail, where he continued to plead for help, this time telling the Wayne County Sheriff’s personnel that they had the wrong individual.
Despite his protests, he remain jailed for two weeks.
“I was very scared. I’d never been in a county jail. That first minute felt like an hour. The hour felt like a day. The day felt like a month,” Seales said. “I was locked up with the real serious criminals.”
Victim catches mistake
It wasn’t until his preliminary examination that the mistake was caught. That’s when the victim in the fugitive’s case saw Seales in court and told the prosecution that he was the wrong person. The victim pointed at Seales in court and said he wasn’t the man who shot at him in 2010.
That man was Roderick Siner, whose mugshot, the prosecutor would discover that day, looked nothing like the man in court she was prosecuting.
That same day, the case was dismissed for insufficient evidence and lack of identification.
Judge Deborah Ford of the 36th District Court signed the order of dismissal, which states:
“The individual that was arrested on January 18, 2012, Marvin
Seales … is not the defendant in this matter, Roderick Siner. The defendant used Marvin
Seales’s name as an alias. As a result, Marvin Seales was
wrongfully arrested and detained from January 18, 2012, to
February 1, 2012.”
The judge gave Seales a copy of the dismissal and suggested he keep it on him. Seales carried it in his wallet for almost six years.
The prosecutor who caught the mistake apologized to Seales.
“Well, if it was me, I would be rather upset,” the ex-prosecutor, Shannon Walker, said in court. “Since I was acting on behalf of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, I think an apology was in order. An error had been made — clearly.”
A suit is filed
Two months after the charges were dismissed, Seales filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging his constitutional rights had been violated. At the time, he was a working father of three children and one on the way, and had just gotten a mortgage on a house in Harper Woods, where he had moved to from Detroit.
“What if I would have lost my job? I had just moved my family out of the ghetto into the suburbs. What if I didn’t get out? I would have lost everything,” he said, noting he was facing up to life in prison on the attempted murder charge. “I wouldn’t have seen my son born.”
Though Seales wasn’t sure how his civil suit would fare, other wrongful arrest lawsuits around the country show that jurors can be pretty generous when it comes to rewarding the wrongfully accused.
In May, a Philadelphia jury awarded $10 million to a man who served for more than three years in prison, concluding he was locked up based on the false testimony of a police officer who accused him of firing a gun at another officer.
In December 2017, the City of Chicago agreed to pay nearly $31 million to settle lawsuits filed by four men who each spent nearly 15 years in prison for a rape and murder before DNA led to the real killer.
In 2015, the City of Milwaukee agreed to pay $6.5 million to a man who served 13 years in prison for a homicide that he was ultimately cleared of with DNA evidence. The accused claimed police detectives pressured witnesses into framing him for the killing.
In 2012, a Florida jury awarded $600,000 to a man who spent 12 hours in jail after being arrested during a traffic stop in Fort Lauderdale, where he was a passenger in a car. The jury concluded the arrest was unlawful and that the officers were abusive.
In Seales’ case, he claimed that police were grossly negligent in failing to make sure that they were arresting the right person. Seales now has a daughter in college, a daughter and son in high school and a 6-year-old, is thankful that he never lost his job because of the arrest, though he remembers his mother having to explain to his in-laws that he wasn’t a criminal and that none of it was true.
It was traumatic, emotionally draining and it shouldn’t have happened, he said. So he filed a lawsuit.
“I was mad,” he said. “I wanted to fight.”
The lawsuit hit numerous roadblocks. There was the city’s bankruptcy, which stayed the lawsuit in July 2013. It was re-opened in 2015, though the City of Detroit appealed several times, hoping to prevent it from going forward, largely on immunity grounds.
On appeal, Zberkot argued that his actions were not a constitutional violation and that based on the warrant and investigative findings, “it was reasonable to conclude that (Seales) was the person identified in the warrant.”
Specifically, Zberkot argued that Seales had essentially the same name as the wanted fugitive, the same sex, race, age and worked in the same geographic location in which Siner lived. Because the officer believed he was arresting a man who used an alias, he argued, he would have expected Seales to lie about his name. Consequently, it was not unreasonable for Zberkot to mistakenly believe he was arresting Siner, he maintained.
The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals wasn’t convinced. As it held in a January ruling that allowed Seales’ wrongful arrest and imprisonment claims to proceed:
“There is no evidence that the officers made any attempt to verify Seales’ identity,” the 6th Circuit wrote. “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.”
This summer, the case finally went to trial. But the judge declared a mistrial on the second day of trial because of improper testimony by the accused officer.
Another jury of eight was picked. This time, it all went as Seales had hoped. All eight jurors unanimously delivered a verdict in his favor, concluding that he had been wrongfully arrested and jailed for a crime he had nothing to do with.
As the prosecutor who handled the case conceded in court, “someone dropped the ball.”
Contact Tresa Baldas: email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Tbaldas.
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