Man wrongly jailed over child porn charges can sue arresting officer, appellate court says

A Kentucky man who was jailed for nearly a year and a half on suspicion of distributing child pornography can proceed with a malicious prosecution claim against his arresting officer, an appellate court affirmed last week.

The case involves David Jones, a Clark County resident who was arrested in December 2013 after detectives executed a search warrant on his home. Police said they suspected Jones used a computer program called Ares to distribute child pornography, noting a detective had obtained evidence from AT&T that linked Jones’ IP address and router to the alleged video.

Jones was indicted by a grand jury on a single count of promoting a sexual performance by a minor under the age of 16. As he sat in jail, police conducted a forensics examination of several computer devices seized during the warrant, including his computer, tablet and cell phone. The examination revealed purported to show Jones installed Ares on his phone, but no evidence of child pornography was present.

Despite the lack of forensic evidence on his phone, Jones remained in custody for more than a year. In late 2014, nearly a year after the search warrant was executed on his home, Jones’ public defender commissioned a forensic examination of their own. That examination also found no evidence of child pornography, and a forensic examiner said he could find no proof that Jones ever installed or used any peer-to-peer software.

One month after the public defender’s forensics report was presented to the court, a judge reduced Jones’ bail. He was released from custody a short time later. By then, he had spent 14 months behind bars.

Prosecutors dropped their case against Jones in April 2015, citing competing examination reports. Jones filed a lawsuit alleging malicious prosecution, accusing prosecutors of withholding exculpatory evidence in his case.

The case went back and forth between the district and appellate court for more than four years before last week’s decision in which a three judge panel sided with Jones, noting that police apparently failed to notify prosecutors about the conflicting forensics report and didn’t fully inform them about a lack of evidence on Jones’ devices.

In the end, it was that lack of evidence that provoked prosecutors to drop their case against Jones. But the appellate court said the first forensics report conducted months earlier should have been enough to release Jones from jail.

At issue is whether officers with the Clark County Sheriff’s Department fully informed prosecutors after the first forensics report came back empty. While police had enough probable cause to arrest Jones in December 2013, the first forensics report eroded much of that probable cause, and Jones should have been set free.

“It could be reasonably inferred that the Commonwealth lacked the evidence it needed to continue its prosecution of Jones once the forensic examination failed to connect Jones’ devices with the video,” the appellate judges wrote. “In fact, the prosecutors admitted that it was the weakness of the [police] forensic report relative to [the defendant’s forensics] report that justified the dismissal of charges.”

But he wasn’t, and the appellate court ruled that prosecutors opened the door for Jones to file his malicious prosecution claim when they testified in an earlier court case that there was a lack of evidence connecting Jones to the video.

The appellate court said there was enough evidence presented by Jones to continue with a malicious prosecution case against the arresting officer, but not against Clark County or its top sheriff. The case was remanded to the district court for a jury trial.

In a separate case, Jones sued Clark County in state court after jail officials sent him a bill for more than $4,000 related to his incarceration. The invoice included a $35 booking fee and a $10 fee for every day spent behind bars.

In that case, Jones argued that he shouldn’t have to pay anything because the charges against him were dropped. But a Kentucky appellate court ruled against him in February, saying state law allows judges to determine on a case-by-case basis if defendants can afford jail fees at the end of their cases.