Ex-La Mesa police officer acquitted of falsifying police report
A former La Mesa police officer was acquitted Friday of a felony count of falsifying a police report in connection with his high-profile arrest of a young Black man near the Grossmont Transit Center last year.
Matthew Dages was accused of lying about the basis of his May 27, 2020, arrest of Amaurie Johnson, which sparked protests in the East County city when a video of the arrest went viral.
Inside the courtroom, some clapped and Dages smiled as the not guilty verdict was read.
Dages’ happiness is not shared by San Diego NAACP President Francine Maxwell. She’s been observing the trial and got a call immediately following the verdict.
"As the mother of a Black son, I feel for the mother of Amaurie Johnson," said Maxwell. "I’m very upset because although we keep having conversation, nothing changes."
She says it’s hard to believe that the video evidence, and a La Mesa P.D. investigation that got Dages fired, could not convince a jury to find him guilty.
"That jury was rigged from the beginning, this judge, she called them the 'reluctant 15' so how open were they to listening to the evidence, how open were they to listening to all the testimony?" said Maxwell.
Dages, who is white, was fired by the La Mesa Police Department months after the arrest. He faced three years in prison had he been convicted. An El Cajon jury deliberated for just over a day before returning the not guilty verdict.
"This white man with his white privilege of his peers, although Amaurie Johnson did a fabulous job, the district attorney presented what they had this jury made sure that he got the extra mile to believe everything that came out of his mouth, even with video they still found him not guilty," said Maxwell in disbelief.
Prosecutors alleged Dages lied in his report when he wrote that he saw Johnson smoking, lacking a trolley fare while being in a "fare paid zone," and then becoming combative once their encounter escalated into an argument.
Dages said he told Johnson he wasn't allowed to smoke in the area, then asked if Johnson lived at the apartment complex nearby. Though Johnson initially said he did live there, he later admitted he was waiting for friends to pick him up.
Prosecutors alleged the interaction escalated into an argument when Dages would not let Johnson leave the scene after his friends arrived.
Videos of the incident show Dages pushing Johnson into a seated position and pushing him down again after Johnson stood up. Dages alleged in his report that Johnson balled his fists and took a "bladed stance" toward him, which prosecutors and Johnson disputed.
Dages testified that, from his perspective, it appeared that Johnson was putting a smoking device to his mouth. No lighter, cigarettes or other smoking implements were ever found on his person.
Johnson was ultimately arrested on suspicion of assault on an officer, and resisting, delaying and obstructing an officer, and was released on a misdemeanor citation.
The police department later announced it would not be seeking charges against Johnson, who has filed a federal lawsuit against Dages and the city of La Mesa.
Johnson's arrest occurred two days after the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and days after his arrest, a protest held at La Mesa police headquarters devolved into looting and rioting after dark.
Prosecutors argued that due to the ongoing tensions regarding a video proliferated over social media of Johnson's arrest, Dages was spurred to lie on his report to justify the arrest and his subsequent use of force.
According to testimony, Dages was ordered by his superiors to revise the report multiple times, which Dages' attorneys alleged bolstered the report's authenticity.
In a statement, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said, "I want to thank the jury for their time and consideration of this case. While I respect the jury's verdict, I remain proud that my team courageously fought for justice without prejudice against or favor towards anyone.
"The integrity of our criminal justice system depends on police officers filing truthful police reports and our thorough review of the facts and evidence led us to bring the charge and present the case to the jury. The community can take comfort in knowing that the vast majority of police officers in our county serve with honor and uphold the law while doing the difficult job of keeping our communities safe."