A black man from Oregon sued the city of West Linn alleging that police officers unlawfully surveilled him at work and then falsely arrested him in retaliation for having raised complaints with his employer about racial discrimination.
Michael Fesser of Portland claimed in the suit, an amended version of which was filed last month in U.S. District Court in Portland, that the incident left him suffering from emotional distress and resulted in economic damages. He sued the city and several members of the West Linn Police Department for false arrest, malicious prosecution, defamation and invasion of privacy.
West Linn police began investigating Fesser in February 2017 after Fesser raised concerns to his boss, Eric Benson, owner of A&B Towing, that he was being racially discriminated against at work.
According to separate court documents, Fesser said the discrimination included coworkers calling him racial slurs. After he raised his concerns, Benson contacted his friend, West Linn police chief Terry Timeus, and convinced him to look into Fesser for allegedly stealing from the company, according to the lawsuit.
The suit said the theft allegations were false and unsubstantiated.
But, with the approval of West Linn police lieutenant Mike Stradley, detectives Tony Reeves and Mike Boyd used audio and video equipment to watch Fesser while he was at work. The surveillance was “conducted without a warrant or probable cause” and did not result in any evidence that Fesser was stealing from his employer, the lawsuit stated.
Regardless, West Linn officers with the help of Portland police officers, arrested Fesser days later based on Reeves’ and Stradley’s “false representations” to Portland police that they had probable cause for an arrest.
“Sgt. Reeves and Sgt. Boyd unlawfully arrested, detained and interrogated Mr. Fesser in Portland, outside their jurisdiction, without probable cause,” the suit said, adding that the two officers took Fesser’s personal belongings, including papers expressing his concerns with racial discrimination at work.
Fesser spent roughly eight hours at the police station before he was released on his own recognizance. He was later contacted by West Linn police to come down to their station to retrieve some of his belongings. While there, officers informed Fesser that he was fired from his job, according to the lawsuit.
“The West Linn Defendants’ surveillance, arrest, incarceration and interrogation of Mr. Fesser without a warrant or probable cause and their pursuit of baseless criminal charges against Mr. Fesser were racially motivated, retaliatory, extra-jurisdictional and an egregious abuse of the power with which the police are entrusted,” the suit said.
According to the lawsuit, criminal charges in the arrest weren’t filed until after Fesser filed a lawsuit against his employer over his termination and for discrimination. The charges were later dismissed.
During the litigation for the lawsuit against his employer, Fesser learned that the West Linn police investigation into the alleged theft began as a favor to his former boss. Text messages revealed during the legal proceedings showed Reeves and Benson discussed the investigation.
In one message, Reeves said the arrest of Fesser should happen before he went further with his racial discrimination complaint against his job so it does not look like retaliation.
The City of West Linn has since settled the lawsuit and agreed to pay Fesser $600,000. The lawsuit against his employer was settled in March 2018 for $415,000.
Paul Buchanan, Fesser’s lawyer, said his client is pleased both cases have been resolved.
“He is doing fine,” Buchanan said. “This was not about money for him. This was about that they should not be allowed to do this.”
According to Buchanan, the settlement against the police department could be the largest in the state for a wrongful arrest.
A&B Towing, the West Linn Police Department and the Portland Police Department did not immediately return requests for comments.