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Court Rejects Zoellner Appeal 

Judges find officers had probable cause to support murder arrest

The United States' Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling finding Arcata police had probable cause to arrest Kyle Zoellner on suspicion of murdering David Josiah Lawson, rejecting Zoellner's claim for damages against the city.

The unanimous ruling filed June 25 rejects all five of Zoellner's legal arguments, upholding the October 2022 decisions of United States District Court Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley, who overturned a jury's verdict finding an Arcata detective violated Zoellner's civil rights by instigating a malicious prosecution. The ruling also rejected other issues raised in Zoellner's appeal, including that he was denied proper medical attention and that police defamed his character.

"Because the district court reached the correct result, we affirm," the ruling states.

Zoellner filed the civil lawsuit in 2018, alleging police violated his civil rights when they arrested him April 17, 2017, at the scene of a house party off Alliance Road where Lawson, a 19-year-old Humboldt State University sophomore, had been fatally stabbed during a fight. Prosecutors alleged Zoellner stabbed Lawson multiple times with a kitchen knife during the last of several altercations that began after Zoellner's then-girlfriend, Lila Ortega, began confronting people regarding her lost cell phone.

In the suit, Zoellner initially alleged police lacked probable cause to arrest him, denied him proper medical attention and defamed his character, though a judge later dismissed all those claims, leaving only an allegation that an Arcata police officer — detective Eric Losey — instigated a malicious prosecution by filing a false police report. Specifically, Zoellner's attorneys contended that Losey acted with malice when he filed a report that erroneously stated a witness had identified Zoellner as Lawson's killer in order to get prosecutors to charge him with murder — a charge that was later dismissed by a local judge who found there wasn't enough evidence to support it. Lawson's killing remains unsolved, with the Arcata Police Department's now seven-year-old investigation continuing.

There was no dispute Losey included inaccurate information in his report, falsely stating that witness Jason Martinez had identified Zoellner as the man he saw stab Lawson, when Martinez had simply offered a physical description similar to that of Zoellner. But during Zoellner's preliminary hearing and since, Losey has contended the mistake was an honest one, with no malicious intent.

After a trial that spanned more than a week at a federal courthouse in San Francisco, which saw city and county officials testify, as well as Zoellner, a jury found that Zoellner had proven three of the four elements needed to support the malicious prosecution allegation. Specifically, the jury found that Losey was actively involved in causing Zoellner's prosecution, that he acted "primarily for a purpose other than that of bringing Kyle Zoellner to justice" and that his conduct was a "substantial factor in causing harm" to Zoellner. Deeming Losey's conduct "malicious," the jury proposed awarding Zoellner a total of $776,300 in damages.

But the award was contingent on Corley deciding the fourth element — whether a reasonable officer with Losey's knowledge at the time would have probable cause to believe Zoellner stabbed Lawson. In a 12-page ruling, Corley ruled there was ample reason for an officer in Losey's position to find there was probable cause indicating Zoellner had committed the killing.

Corley detailed six factors in favor of the finding, including another witness' account of finding Zoellner and Lawson fighting moments before realizing Lawson had been fatally stabbed, a determination that witness' statements were credible, the lack of evidence that Lawson fought with anyone else that night, the fact Zoellner was found at the scene covered in blood, that a kitchen knife was found at the scene and Zoellner worked as a chef and had knives in his car that night, and that while Zoellner had an apparent motive, saying he'd been "sucker punched" by Lawson, "no other person with a motive to stab Mr. Lawson was identified."

Zoellner's appeal argued Corley erred in deciding the probable cause question, and also that her decision to dismiss the other allegations was not supported by law. 

The appellate court disagreed on all fronts.

"Zoellner's unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution claims fail because he has not shown any genuine issue of fact as to whether there was probable cause," the ruling states. "Probable cause is a low standard and only requires 'the fair probability or substantial chance' that the suspect has committed a crime. ... Here, ample undisputed evidence supports a 'fair probability' that Zoellner may have committed the crime. Zoellner was identified by witnesses at the scene as the 'stabber' and his clothes were covered in blood. The blood pattern on Zoellner's clothes was not consistent with his own nosebleed. Zoellner also admitted to a physical fight that night with the victim, which was corroborated by an eyewitness. Additionally, a kitchen knife was found at the scene, and Zoellner worked as a chef."

The appellate court also rejected the allegation that officers were deliberately indifferent to Zoellner's "serious medical needs," on the grounds that the facts were not extreme enough to trump responding officers' qualified immunity.

"While Zoellner was not taken to the hospital for at least an hour after officer Nilsen detained him, Zoellner at first refused medical treatment," the ruling states. "And shortly after Zoellner requested medical treatment, officer Nilsen took him to the hospital. The hospital medically cleared Zoellner, and his medical release showed he only had facial lacerations and swelling."

The appellate court also rejects Zoellner's claim that he was defamed by the Arcata Police Department in two separate instances — once in a written probable cause statement detective Todd Dokweiler submitted to the court and again in comments former Chief Tom Chapman made to the North Coast Journal. The court found the claim regarding Dokweiler failed because the law protects statements made as a part of official duties during a judicial proceeding, which applies to the probable cause statement. Chapman, meanwhile, told the Journal that the case involved a "white male who stabbed and killed a Back male," so it was "prudent and logical to look at race as an issue," though the department had made no determination whether race was a factor in the case. The court found the statement was not defamatory because "there is no evidence that it was causally linked to Zoellner's claimed actual damages," which Zoellner alleged included lost earnings.

"We agree with the district court that Zoellner suffered his claimed injuries 'simply because of the charges that had been filed against him'" and not because of what anyone said, the court ruled.

The ruling likely brings to an end civil litigation associated with Lawson's death. Charmaine Lawson, David Josiah Lawson's mother, also brought a suit against the city in November of 2018, alleging that officials violated her equal protection rights by inadequately and incompletely investigating the case. She also alleged racism and bias contributed to what the lawsuit described as "deliberately indifferent" policies and practices. Charmaine Lawson subsequently settled the case, with the city agreeing to pay $200,000, make a donation to the David Josiah Lawson Memorial Scholarship fund and agree to the painting of a memorial mural.

The Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury and the National Police Foundation both investigated the investigation into Lawson's killing and issued reports that were sharply critical of the Arcata Police Department's handling of the case — saying it was plagued by initial failures to bring allied agencies to assist with the investigation and to secure and manage the crime scene, as well as a lack of witness cooperation — but neither found evidence of racism or bias on the part of the department or officers.

Zoellner has 40 days to petition the California Supreme Court to review the appellate decision, though he faces an uphill battle to get the court to accept the case, as it reviews only 5 percent of cases it's petitioned to hear.

The Arcata Police Department's investigation into Lawson's killing, meanwhile, remains open, and the department asks anyone who attended the party where he was killed or has any information about the case to call (707) 825-2590.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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