A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia filed by a man who claims police encouraged neighborhood residents to assault him, since law enforcement officials had believed the man was responsible for the rape of a little girl.
Michael Zenquis filed suit against the city and various police officers and officials on March 1, 2011, alleging that he was beaten by fellow residents in his Kensington neighborhood two years prior after police, who were investigating the rape of an 11-year-old girl, told community members to physically detain the man they suspected of having committed the crime.
According to background information on the case contained within U.S. District Judge Louis H. Pollak’s March 16 ruling, Philadelphia police officers received a tip that an individual known as “Romeo” had committed the rape against the young girl on June 1, 2009.
Zenquis, who was known in Kensington by the nickname “Romeo,” was soon identified by police as a suspect in the crime.
Police began circulating a photograph of Zenquis around the neighborhood and asked citizens to detain Zenquis if they spotted him. Neighbors were allegedly specifically asked to use physical force if they came upon the suspect.
“The citizens to whom the officer defendants spoke understood that ‘the clear message from the officers [was] that they would be free to assault [Zenquis] with impunity,’” the complaint alleged, according to the judge’s ruling.
On June 1, the same day that the rape occurred, Zenquis, while walking down the street in his neighborhood, was accosted by two men, one of whom struck Zenquis in the eye with a piece of lumbar.
Another man soon joined in and the three ended up throwing Zenquis to the ground and assaulted him with their fists, feet and various improvised weapons, such as pieces of lumber and baseball bats, the court papers state.
All the while people called Zenquis a rapist.
“The civilians who assaulted [Zenquis] had spoken to at least one or more of the individual defendants, and were told … that they should detain [Zenquis] and that they would be permitted to use force against [Zenquis],” the ruling states.
Zenquis was eventually taken to the hospital and treated for his injuries. He was cleared as a suspect in the rape when a DNA test determined he was innocent.
Zenquis was able to identify two of the people who assaulted him. Charges against one were dropped while the other person pleaded guilty.
Meanwhile, the man who ended up being charged and convicted for the rape initially met a similar fate as that of Zenquis when neighbors captured and beat him.
That man, Jose Carrasquillo, was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.
Zenquis filed an amended complaint in federal court on July 13, 2011, which substituted the names of the John Doe officers for actual names but otherwise left the allegations intact.
The complaint contains multiple theories of liability against the defendants, such as the assertion that officers conspired with and aided and abetted private citizens in violating Zenquis’s Fourth Amendment rights.
The lawsuit also claims that the City of Philadelphia is liable for the violation of Zenquis’s constitutional rights based on a theory of municipal liability. In this claim, Zenquis alleges that the city failed to properly train its police officers on the dangers of encouraging civilians to use force to apprehend a suspect, and that the city condoned a custom of vigilantism.
The city had filed a motion to dismiss the complaint and a motion for leave to file a reply brief to the plaintiff’s response to the motion to dismiss.
While denying the motion to dismiss, the judge did grant the city’s motion for leave to file a reply brief.
The judge wrote that Zenquis succeeded in satisfying the requirements to state a conspiracy claim against the defendants.
Pollak wrote that the allegations, at this stage of the litigation, are enough to “ground an inference that there was an agreement between at least some of the officer defendants and the private actors to violate Zenquis’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure.
“In context, it is not implausible that the police would commit themselves to such an agreement during the frenetic search for a suspect wanted for a sensational crime; the plausibility of the conspiracy allegation is further bolstered by the allegation that the police licensed similar behavior in capturing the actual rapist the following day,” the ruling states.
“At the very least, Zenquis has put the defendants on notice of the nature of the conspiracy claim with sufficiently detailed factual allegations to justify discovery.”
Pollak also refused to grant the city’s motion to dismiss the state-created danger claim and the municipal liability claim brought by Zenquis.