PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice will not pursue criminal charges in the 2017 wrongful arrest of a Black man who said he was targeted because he complained about a racially hostile work environment at a Portland, Oregon, towing company.
Oregon’s U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams said Friday there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that officers involved in Michael Fesser’s arrest “willfully violated” Fesser’s civil rights or federal public corruption laws.
The FBI and federal prosecutors found they could not prove that the officers acted with the specific intent to violate the law.
“It is not enough to show that an officer made a mistake, acted negligently, acted by accident or mistake, or even exercised bad judgment,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release. “Here, the government cannot prove that the manner in which Mr. Fesser was arrested violated a federally protected right, or that the actions taken by law enforcement officials were willful.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI opened a criminal investigation a year ago after The Oregonian/OregonLive reported the West Linn Police Department had settled a federal discrimination and wrongful arrest lawsuit by Fesser for $600,000. Three members of Congress also urged federal officials to launch a probe into wrongdoing by West Linn, Oregon, police in building a questionable theft case against Fesser.
Fesser’s litigation uncovered that West Linn police pursued surveillance and the arrest of Fesser in February 2017 as a favor to a friend of then-West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus. The friend was Fesser’s boss.
Fesser argued the arrest was retaliation for his complaints about a racially hostile work environment. Theft charges against Fesser eventually were dropped, and Fesser’s boss, Eric Benson, paid Fesser $415,000 to settle a separate civil suit.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in its investigation interviewed 18 people, including Fesser, police officers and West Linn city employees, and examined about 28,000 pages of documents in response to 24 subpoenas for records, the news release said.
Fesser’s lawyer, Paul Buchanan, told The Oregonian/OregonLive he believes the federal inquiry was thorough and isn’t surprised by the outcome.
“It’s healthy that local police had to undergo the scrutiny of this process from the federal government. I understand that, unfortunately, under current law, proving a federal criminal civil rights violation by the police is extraordinarily challenging,” Buchanan said. “We need a change in federal law to alter the kind of casual impunity that officers involved in this wrongful arrest displayed.”