Cornelius officer faces claim of malicious prosecution

A recent federal court ruling puts Cornelius Police Officer Miguel Monico on track to face claims related to allegations of untruthfulness, unless defense attorneys for Monico and the city of Cornelius decide to settle the lawsuit making these claims.

As reported by the News-Times earlier this year, a Cornelius family filed the suit in 2011, claiming Monico fabricated the father’s “confession” that a white powder in his possession was cocaine. (“Truthfulness at center of cop controversy,” June 12, 2013).

In his Sept. 27 opinion, U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman said the lawsuit can go forward with its claim that Diego Mata-Gonzalez was deprived of “substantive due process” because there is a “genuine question” about whether Monico lied when he reported that Mata-Gonzalez had admitted he possessed cocaine.

Mata-Gonzalez also can proceed with state claims for malicious prosecution against both Monico and the city of Cornelius, based on constitutional guarantees in the fourteenth amendment, Mosman wrote.

According to court records, Mata-Gonzalez was arrested by Monico in 2010 and briefly held in jail. He was released the next day, on condition that he not return home or have contact with his children while charges were pending.

In addition, a child-welfare official removed Mata-Gonzalez’s two youngest children from home for 77 days — which is how long it took for the state crime lab to finally test the white powder (after repeated requests by Mata-Gonzalez’s attorney) and discover it was not a controlled substance. Mata-Gonzalez had maintained all along it was not, according to his attorney, Michelle R. Burrows.

The lawsuit started with four plaintiffs — Mata-Gonzalez, his wife and two youngest children — making 21 claims against 12 named defendants, including numerous police officers, state officials and agencies. But through the pre-trial process it has been whittled down to just one plaintiff making three claims against two defendants — Monico and the city of Cornelius.

The remaining claims, however, could have serious repercussions if a judge or jury found in favor of Mata-Gonzalez and awarded damages.

Mosman, who reviewed findings and a recommendation previously made on the case by U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Papak, notes that both sides in the case “vigorously contest” whether Monico included false information (about Mata-Gonzalez’s “confession”) on his police report and also whether he forwarded false “cocaine” field-test results to the Washington County District Attorney.

While not determining Monico’s credibility himself, Mosman agreed with Papak that “a reasonable factfinder at trial might find (Monico’s) credibility lacking.”

That’s a huge liability for police officers, whose careers depend on their credibility. Evidence of past untruthfulness can weaken an officer’s testimony in court and undermine the cases against the people they’ve arrested.

Washington County District Attorney Bob Hermann is currently allowing his office to continue using Monico as a witness, while continuing to notify defense attorneys of the federal suit against him. Attorneys on all sides have recently received and are reviewing Mosman’s opinion and order.

“We are mindful that this is a pending lawsuit and as such we will await the final results and conclusions,” Hermann said. “In the meantime we will monitor the situation and respond appropriately.”

A settlement between the three parties wouldn’t necessarily remove the questions about Monico’s credibility, given that public records detailing the allegations against him would still be available to defense attorneys.

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