Man arrested in Washington state after detective made false statements gets $225,000 settlement
Dec 12, 2023, 2:07 PM
SEATTLE (AP) — King County will pay $225,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit brought by a Black man who was arrested on drug charges after a veteran detective made false statements to obtain a search warrant, including misidentifying him in a photo.
Detective Kathleen Decker, a now-retired 33-year veteran of the King County Sheriff’s Office, was looking for a murder weapon when she asked a Washington state judge for a warrant to search the car and apartment of Seattle resident Gizachew Wondie in 2018. At the time, federal agents were separately looking into Wondie’s possible involvement in selling drugs.
Wondie was not a suspect in the homicide, but Decker’s search warrant application said a gun he owned was the same weapon that had been used to kill a 22-year-old woman a few months earlier.
In reality, the gun was only a potential match and further testing was required to prove it. Further, Decker, who is white, falsely claimed that a different Black man pictured in an Instagram photo holding a gun was Wondie, and that Wondie had a “propensity” for violence, when he had never been accused of a violent crime.
Decker also omitted information from her search warrant application that suggested Wondie no longer possessed the gun she was looking for. During a federal court hearing about the warrant’s validity, she acknowledged some of her statements were incorrect or exaggerated, but she said she did not deliberately mislead the judge who issued the warrant.
The false and incomplete statements later forced federal prosecutors to drop drug charges against Wondie. A federal judge called her statements “reckless conduct, if not intentional acts.”
“Detectives need to be truthful, complete, and transparent in their testimony to judges reviewing search warrant applications,” Wondie’s attorney, Dan Fiorito, said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “Incorrectly portraying Mr. Wondie as a violent gang member based on an inept cross-racial identification, and exaggerating ballistics evidence to tie him to a crime he was not involved in, was reckless and a complete violation of his rights.”
The King County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately return an email seeking comment. The county did not admit liability as part of the settlement.
Two days after the judge issued the warrant, Decker had a SWAT team confront Wondie as he parked his car near Seattle Central College, where he was studying computer science. The SWAT team arrested Wondie and found drugs on him.
Investigators then questioned Wondie and learned he had another apartment, where using another search warrant they found 11,000 Xanax pills, 171 grams of cocaine, a pill press and other evidence of drug dealing.
Wondie’s defense attorneys successfully argued that without the false statements used for the first warrant, authorities would not have had probable cause to arrest Wondie or learn of the second apartment. U.S. District Judge Richard Jones threw out the evidence in the federal case, and prosecutors dropped those charges.
Decker was the sheriff’s office detective of the year in 2018. The department called her “an outright legend” in a Facebook post marking her 2020 retirement.