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Legally Speaking: I-10 shooter suit poses interesting question about suing officials

(Tom Tingle/The Arizona Republic via AP, Pool, File)

Is the answer always to sue? It may not always be the answer but the Wednesday filing of a civil lawsuit against Arizona and Maricopa County by Leslie Merritt, Jr. — who was charged with being the I-10 shooter — is starting the conversation.

Merritt was arrested last September and charged. He endured comments by government officials declaring he was the shooter and an arrest that resulted in 200 days in jail.  Relief came in April 2016, when his case was dismissed by Judge Warren Granville.

It was a relief for Merritt, but not for Maricopa County. That means the shooter is still out there.

Merritt’s lawsuit spends 20 pages laying out his allegations of false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional arrest.

Basically, Merritt is claiming the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s crime lab lied to detectives, who then lied to the county attorney, who then lied to the grand jury. No, not a series of mistakes, but a series of lies. Lies are often the basis for civil lawsuits.

Merritt explains that it was no secret law enforcement was under immense pressure to solve the case of the I-10 shooter, which led to mistakes and intentional lies.

He then describes how these mistakes and lies led to him being falsely accused with very little evidence — namely a ballistics report which was then determined to be incorrect by the state’s own expert — causing him a loss of freedom, anxiety, physical pain, emotional distress, and lost wages.

The question remains: Should he sue? There is no way to get back those 200 days of being locked in a jail — away from your family, unable to live life, listen to your music, watch your TV, and hug your baby. It is impossible to repair your reputation from something like this, especially since officials are still making public statements that you are the bad guy.

So, what can you do? The choice comes down to walking away or suing for money to try to compensate for what was done to you through no fault of your own.

I am under no illusion that Merritt is doing this for the good of the community at large and I don’t blame him for making this decision. We put a lot of trust and faith in the police and prosecutors and, if there are some that intentionally lied, they need to be taken to task for it.

There must be checks and balances. Unfortunately, this check may end up being written by the taxpayers for a very large amount.

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