A black man who was the target of unlawful surveillance and a false arrest by police in Oregon in 2017 acting at the request of his employer has received a $600,000 payout for the emotional distress caused.
Michael Fesser, 48, of Portland, Oregon, sued the city of West Linn and several members of its police force in 2018 alleging that the city’s police officers carried out unlawful surveillance of him at work after he submitted a complaint about racial discrimination to his employer in February 2017.
After receiving the complaint, his boss Eric Benson asked his fishing buddy, former West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus, to initiate a racially-motivated surveillance of Fesser which led to his false arrest.
Fesser sued for false arrest, malicious prosecution, defamation and invasion of privacy in the summer of 2018, on Tuesday receiving $600,000 in compensation from West Linn in what is thought to be the largest payout for a wrongful arrest in the state.
Michael Fesser, 48, pictured, was falsely arrested in February 2017 after his boss asked the police chief to start an investigation into false theft claims because Fesser filed a racial discrimination complaint about his work place – He was today awarded $600,000
A & B Towing company owner Eric Benson, pictured, asked his fishing buddy, former West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus, to initiate a racially-motivated surveillance of Fesser
Fesser, a father of eight who now runs a prison ministry and transitional program to support men getting out of prison, was an employee of A&B Towing in Portland in February 2017 when he filed a complaint about racial discrimination in the workplace to his employer Eric Benson.
In retaliation, Benson contacted the former West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus, a fishing buddy of his, and asked him to investigate false allegations that Fesser was stealing from the company.
Fesser had worked for the company since 2004, mostly managing its car auctions.
Timeus engaged his officers to carry out the unlawful investigation, which had no ties to West Linn. They uncovered no wrongdoing or proof of theft but Fesser was still arrested with the aid of Portland police.
Former West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus engaged his officers to carry out unlawful surveillance on Fesser in February 2017
Text messages sent between Benson and Timeus on February 21, 2017, show the police chief telling the business owner that he ‘will have your case ready to go before Saturday’.
On February 25, 2017, police conducted the surveillance of Fesser at his job, providing real-time updates to Benson about his actions at an auction.
In the suit filed by Fesser in 2018, the police officers were accused of making an unlawful recording of Fesser at work without a warrant or court order, arresting him without probably cause and seizing his cash, phone, and a letter outlining the racial discrimination complaint, also without a search warrant.
The suit also reveled racist and homophobic texts sent between West Linn police and Benson regarding Fesser during the unlawful investigation.
Fesser says he took legal action against the officers to ensure it doesn’t happen to another black man and because the incident left him suffering emotional distress and economic damages having lost his job.
‘Ever since that arrest, I was terrified to go to West Linn,’ Fesser told The Oregonian.
‘This has to be exposed, and it has to stop.’
‘This case vividly illustrates a ready willingness on the part of the West Linn police to abuse the enormous power they have been given, and a casual, jocular, old-boy-style racism of the kind that we Oregonians tend to want to associate with the Deep South rather than our own institutions,’ said Fesser’s lawyer Paul Buchanan.
‘He is doing fine,’ Buchanan told NBC.
‘This was not about money for him. This was about that they should not be allowed to do this.’
West Linn police began investigating Fesser in February 2017 after he raised concerns to Benson about being racially discriminated against at work. According to a separate suit filed by Fesser against his employer in September 2017, he claimed he was the victim of racial slurs in the workplace.
Soon after, Benson called on police chief Timeus and convinced him to carry out surveillance of Fesser based on false allegations that he was stealing from the company.
In his suit filed against the city of West Linn in 2018, Fesser said the theft allegations were false and unsubstantiated.
A text from police chief Timeus to Benson telling him that the surveillance would start soon
Texts between business owner Benson and Detective Reeves as Fesser was watched at work
Texts between Benson and Reeves claimed that Fesser was stealing from the company
The unlawful investigation was approved by West Linn police lieutenant Mike Stradley and detectives Tony Reeves and Mike Boyd began the surveillance of Fesser without a warrant.
The suit stated that the audio and video surveillance was ‘conducted without a warrant or probable cause’ and established no proof of theft from Fesser.
Lt Stradley claims that he gave the go ahead for the surveillance because of a memory of Fesser being associated with gangs in the 1980s and ’90s.
Fesser did have a 2001 conviction for using his phone in the commission of a drug-trafficking offense. He was sentenced to four years in prison but had no other convictions.
Stradley also admitted that he had not had any interactions with Fesser for over two decades.
Fesser’s suit claimed that it was the ‘false representations’ from Stradley and Detective Reeves that then led to his unlawful arrest.
A text from Reeves to Benson at the time read ‘my game my rules’ just before he moved to arrest Fesser, adding ‘it’s better that we arrest him before he makes the complaint (of race discrimination). Then it can’t be retaliation’.
On his arrest, Fesser was ordered to step out of his SUV and police took his phone, cash and a letter Fesser had written to his boss documenting the alleged racial discrimination he faced at work, despite not having a warrant to do so.
A text sent to Benson after Fesser’s arrest to say police found his workplace complaint letter
Detective Tony Reeves supplied Benson with updates on the surveillance and testified against Fesser despite no evidence being found that the employee was stealing from the company
‘Sgt. Reeves and Sgt. Boyd unlawfully arrested, detained and interrogated Mr. Fesser in Portland, outside their jurisdiction, without probable cause,’ the suit added.
‘The West Linn Defendants’ surveillance, arrest, incarceration and interrogation of Mr. Fesser without a warrant or probable cause and their pursuit of baseless criminal charges against Mr. Fesser were racially motivated, retaliatory, extra-jurisdictional and an egregious abuse of the power with which the police are entrusted.’
Having spent eight hours at the station before his release, Fesser was later called back to West Linn police station to collect his belongings and told by officers there that he had lost his job.
Although arrested in February, criminal charges weren’t filed until Fesser filed a lawsuit against Benson in September 2017 questioning his termination in this manner after the discrimination complaints were made.
After this lawsuit against Benson was filed, West Linn police asked Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office to revive the theft charges and in November 2017, Fesser was indicted on five counts of first-degree theft, mainly based on testimony from Reeves and Benson.
His former boss offered to drop the theft charges against Fesser if he dropped the initial lawsuit about his termination but Fesser refused.
Benson was eventually forced to drop the charges, however, after Fesser and his lawyers received access to the text messages that showed proof that Benson had called in a favor from the police chief after Fesser made his discrimination complaint.
Lt. Mike Stradley claimed Fesser was a ‘gang associate’ despite not having interacted with him in over two decades since he saw Fesser at court with gang members in the 1980s and 90s
The messages also revealed racist and homophobic comments made about Fesser between Benson and the police officers.
They included wishes that Fesser wouldn’t be arrested in Clackamas County to ‘make sure he was with some real racist boys’.
‘Only after he received the text messages did he understand that racism, cronyism and impropriety of the officer’s conduct and motivations,’ Fesser’s lawyer wrote in court documents.
‘And only after he received the texts were all criminal charges precipitously dropped.’
Fesser’s first lawsuit against his employer was settled in March 2018 for $415,000.
According to a statement from West Linn Police Department on February 11, the department did not accept liability for Fesser’s arrest but said ‘it was determined that a cessation of litigation expenses was in the best interest of the City and allows us to focus on our core mission of service to the community.
‘In 2018, when the allegations were first reported, an internal investigation was conducted and swift and appropriate disciplinary personnel action was taken,’ it added although other social media posts from the department shows that Detective Reeves received a promotion in March 2018.
Terry Timeus is no longer the police chief in West Linn.