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Arizona club-hopper nets six-figure settlement after cops wrongfully accused her of hit-and-run, told her she was ‘not entitled’ to lawyer

Yessenia Garcia pictured during her wrongful arrest.

Yessenia Garcia pictured during her wrongful arrest (Scottsdale PD bodycam)

An Arizona woman wrongfully accused of a hit-and-run and arrested in May 2020 despite exculpatory surveillance video has reached a six-figure settlement with the City of Scottsdale to end her federal lawsuit.

Scottsdale City Council minutes from April 4 show that a $200,000 settlement was approved in Yessenia Garcia’s case. Two days later, the federal court docket in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona reflected that the plaintiff and defendants jointly agreed to dismiss the case one month before the trial was scheduled to begin. On the same day, U.S. District Judge Steven P. Logan ordered that the case be dismissed with prejudice — meaning it cannot be filed again — effective May 8, unless the parties file the stipulation for dismissal earlier than that.

“IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the trial, currently scheduled to begin May 9, 2023, is vacated,” the judge added.

The civil lawsuit against the City of Scottsdale and police officers Brian Steel and Nicolas Fay, a complaint that initially sought no less than $300,000 in damages, alleged that the two cops “failed to take basic investigation steps in connection with establishing reasonable suspicion and probable cause” and wrongfully arrested Garcia on a night when she and her boyfriend were out club-hopping with friends.

Garcia said that her car — which the investigators alleged was involved in a hit-and-run — was actually never moved from a parking spot after the plaintiff and her group of friends started their nightclub outing. Garcia alleged that the officers repeatedly asserted that she was lying about her alibi instead of consulting readily available video and receipt-based evidence:

Plaintiff and her boyfriend attempted to prove to Officers Fay and Steel that they were in fact in the nightclub and that the car had not moved from where they originally parked it, but Officers Steel and Fay refused to listen to them and ignored a plethora of exculpatory evidence readily available to them at the scene which easily established that Plaintiff and her boyfriend were telling the truth. For example, Plaintiff and her boyfriend attempted to show the involved officers transaction receipts from their purchases at the nightclubs, they asked officers to go speak to the bouncers and security of the nightclubs where they were just at who would confirm their whereabouts earlier that evening, and pointed out that there were obviously numerous surveillance cameras surrounding the area of where Plaintiff parked her vehicle and where the nightclubs where located, including surveillance inside of the nightclubs which would confirm their whereabouts. Further, Plaintiff’s friends, who she was with while inside of the nightclubs, also attempted to talk to involved officers to confirm that Plaintiff was with them that evening and that she had not left the nightclub prior to returning to her car and finding the windshield vandalized. However, the involved officers, including Fay and Steel, continued to ignore various evidence which established that Plaintiff’s car had not moved since she initially parked it earlier that evening.

According to the plaintiff, the bike-riding officers also wrongly assumed that the damage to her car’s windshield was proof of her involvement in the hit-and-run.

“While Plaintiff was inside of the nightclub with her friends, a random man vandalized Plaintiff’s car by smashing the windshield while it remained parked in the same parking space where Plaintiff had originally parked it. At no time did Plaintiff’s vehicle move from the original parking space from the time she parked her car, until the time the individual smashed her windshield,” the suit said.

Instead, Garcia said, Officers Steel and Fay “then began accusing Plaintiff and to a lesser extent, her boyfriend, of being suspects in a prior hit and run incident” by asking about their alcohol consumption.

“Plaintiff and her boyfriend unsuccessfully attempted to explain to Officers Fay and Steel that they were not involved in any hit and run, that they had been inside of a nightclub all night prior to returning to their vehicle to find it vandalized, in the same location where they initially parked it,” the suit said.

The plaintiff further alleged Garcia’s belief that her race and that of her boyfriend — they “are Latina and African-American” — played a role in the officers’ refusal to believe their story.

In the end, the suit said, the damage to Garcia’s vehicle wasn’t consistent with a hit-and-run incident and forensic evidence did not support the arrest, either:

The hood of Plaintiff’s car, as well as her front bumper, were not dented or bent as may be expected in a car involved in a hit and run. Further, there was no blood, human tissue or fluid on the car, including the windshield, which may be expected in a car involved in a hit and run. Further, the involved officers, including Fay and Steel, did not perform any kind of chemical test on the windshield to test for blood, DNA, finger prints or anything else.

The involved officers, including Fay and Steel, then intentionally began make false statements to Plaintiff including that the hood of the car was warm despite knowing very well that it was not, that Plaintiff had pieces of glass on her clothing, including her shirt, despite inspecting her clothing closely, including with a flashlight and never seeing any glass or anything that resembled glass on her clothing, that there were handprints on the windshield, even though the officers never saw any handprints, or anything that resembled handprints on the windshield, and telling Plaintiff that the officers saw her car drive up and park, even though they never observed Plaintiff’s car move from the parking space where it was originally parked.

The lawsuit also said that the officers made a rudimentary legal error by rejecting her request to speak to a lawyer.

“After being informed that Plaintiff was being detained, the involved officers then refused Plaintiff’s request to speak to an attorney, despite the fact that Plaintiff was being detained and was not free to leave. Despite being in a custodial interrogation, the involved officers refused Plaintiff’s request, and violated her rights, to speak to counsel. The involved officers then resumed questioning Plaintiff without affording her the opportunity to contact counsel, in violation of her rights,” the complaint said.

The Arizona Republic reported the exchange as follows:

Garcia: “OK, well can I get a lawyer?”

Officer: “No, you’re not entitled to one… You’re under investigation.”

Following Garcia’s arrest, she was “stripped nude and humiliated while at the jail, despite the involved officers, including Fay and Steel, knowing that there was never any glass on her clothing, including her shirt, and despite knowing that their statements to Plaintiff were false regarding the existence of glass on her clothing, including her shirt,” the suit said. “Plaintiff spent the night in jail and was released the following day,” only to see her mugshot circulating far and wide.

After Garcia came forward with her allegations, Scottsdale Police acknowledged that mistakes were made.

“We made some mistakes plain and simple, and the involved employees have been disciplined for those mistakes,” Chief Jeff Walther said. “We are not infallible and any expectation of such is unrealistic. I remain committed to maintaining a strong culture of accountability, transparency, and professionalism. When employees fall short of those standards, there are consequences. Those consequences will always be in line with the level of misconduct identified. In this case, I am confident in the investigation’s findings and that our employees did not demonstrate malice or ill intent. I know that does not change how the events unfolded that evening or how Ms. Garcia was affected, and for that she has my most sincere apologies.”

Cops added that the “most serious” discipline doled out “included one employee receiving a 40-hour suspension and another employee receiving a 20-hour suspension, both of which are unpaid.”

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.