Warner Robins man files wrongful arrest lawsuit against Byron

bpurser@macon.comNovember 28, 2012 

Police arrested the wrong man in connection with a high-speed chase in Peach and Houston counties June 26, and now he’s filed a lawsuit against the city of Byron and one of its police officers.

Byron police Lt. Bryan Hunter previously said Clark Joseph Bell of Warner Robins was wrongly arrested and charged with felony fleeing and attempting to elude based on a case of mistaken identity from a security video of a business near where the chase started. The charge against Bell was immediately dropped, Hunter said.

A subsequent warrant for felony fleeing and eluding was issued for Michael Hanks of Warner Robins in connection with the incident. Hunter said then that Bell and Hanks resembled each other enough that they could be brothers, and both knew the owner of the 2004 gold Chevrolet Impala that was driven, Hunter said. The car was not reported stolen.

Hanks was arrested July 12 on the Byron warrant by Warner Robins police. Peach County prosecutor Clif Woody could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening for the status of that case.

Monday, Bell filed a lawsuit in federal court in Macon against the city of Byron and Hunter, alleging he was unreasonably detained and falsely arrested in violation of his Fourth and 14th Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Bell, who spent more than 24 hours in jail, alleged in the lawsuit that he “suffered monetary loss and severe emotional and psychological distress” from the arrest and the publicity around it.

He is seeking actual, compensatory, punitive and special damages to be determined by a jury at trial. He also is seeking the award of attorney’s fees and litigation costs.

Hunter stated in a text message Wednesday that neither he nor Byron Police Chief Wesley Cannon could comment on pending litigation. City Administrator Derick W. Hayes referred comment to Cannon. Cannon and City Attorney Joan Harris could not be reached for comment.

About 10 p.m. June 26, Byron police attempted to pull over a car at the Texaco at 245 Ga. 49 North near the Byron exit of Interstate 75.

The driver slowed as if about to stop but then took off. A Georgia State Patrol trooper joined and took over the chase, with Byron police assisting. The 10- to 15-minute chase traveled south down Interstate 75 and through parts of Warner Robins. The driver eluded authorities.

According to the lawsuit, Hunter matched a “grainy surveillance photograph” from the gas station to Bell’s driver’s license photograph and then took out an arrest warrant for Bell on charges of driving without proof of insurance, reckless driving, speeding and felony fleeing and eluding.

Bell’s photograph was published with media reports about an arrest warrant having been issued for him in connection with the incident.

“After reeling from the shock and embarrassment of seeing his picture in the news,” the lawsuit stated that Bell turned himself in about 11:30 p.m. on June 28.

The car’s owner, Sara Dufner, attempted to contact Hunter throughout the day on June 29 to tell him she had loaned the car to her boyfriend, who was Hanks, according to the lawsuit.

“However, her phone calls were ignored until late that night, almost 24 hours after Mr. Bell was taken into police custody,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also alleges Hunter made no prior attempts to contact Dufner to ask her who was driving her car when the chase occurred.

The lawsuit alleges Hunter’s actions were “willful, deliberate and malicious” and indicative of “widespread custom and practice.” The lawsuit also alleges the failure to discipline Hunter “ratified the officer’s decisions and his reasons for those decisions, thus, constituting a policy, custom or practice.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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