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Palm Coast Monday, Apr. 18, 2016 2 years ago

Man wrongly arrested in mistaken identity case to sue Sheriff's Office for $200,000

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Dakota Ward, 19, was arrested in error after a deputy misspelled a suspect's name on an arrest affidavit — writing Dakota Ward instead of De'Coda Ward. The deputy faces a three-day unpaid suspension.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

The police work was sloppy: Deputy James Gore should have confirmed the spelling of the suspect's name with the victim, who knew the suspect. But he didn't. He should have confirmed the suspect's appearance and address, too, but didn't do that either.  

The result? Brown-haired, brown-eyed Dakota Ward of North Orange Street was handcuffed and booked at the county jail when the man deputies should have been after was strawberry-blond-haired, light-eyed De'Coda Ward of Moody Boulevard. Dakota Ward, who'd never been arrested before, plans to sue the Flagler County Sheriff's Office for $200,000 — the maximum amount allowed under the law.

The Sheriff's Office didn't begin clearing the error — and Dakota's name — until a newspaper reporter alerted the agency's administration to the problem by asking questions. An internal investigation led the Sheriff's Office to recommend a three-day unpaid suspension for Gore, a 26-year-old who was hired in 2011.

Here's what happened, according to the Sheriff's Office's internal investigation: On Dec. 15, Gore responded to a report of a battery. The suspect had left the scene by the time the deputy arrived, and after talking with victim Chad Cox, Gore wrote up a charging affidavit listing "Dakota Ward" as a suspect. That was wrong: The victim, who knew the suspect, was talking about a man named De'Coda Ward — and Cox wrote the name that way in his own written statement. Gore didn't notice the discrepancy.

And although Cox told him that De'Coda Ward lived at the Capri trailer park on Moody Boulevard, Gore didn't go there, he later told investigators during the internal affairs investigation, "because he was in Zone 2 in Palm Coast and wasn't going all the way down to Bunnell for a misdemeanor to make contact with all the parties."

That was a major error, Sheriff's Office spokesman James Troiano said. "It’s sloppy, and it's uncalled for," he said. "It doesn’t take but a minute to reach out to your zone partner and say, 'Can you go out to this location for me, and make suspect contact?' Or he could have even done it himself the next day."

In an interview during the internal affairs investigation, the detective "said that Dakota is such a good kid that if law enforcement said he did something he would believe that he did," according to the internal affairs report.

Cox looked up "Dakota Ward" in a driver's license database and filled out the suspect information on the charging affidavit with Dakota's identifying information. But for the address, rather than using the North Orange Street one listed in the database, he used the one Cox had given him, at the Capri trailer park on Moody Boulevard, because Cox was sure that's where the man who'd hit him lived.

So a summons to appear in court was issued for "Dakota Ward," and sent to De'Coda Ward's home with Dakota's name on it. 

De'Coda didn't appear in court. Neither did Dakota, who had no idea he was a wanted man. A warrant for arrest on a charge of failure to appear in court was then issued March 22 — again with Dakota's name on it. 

Deputies arrested Dakota Ward at his home in Bunnell March 26 after the young man returned from a fishing trip with his father. Dakota Ward told the arresting deputy, Rich Petkovsek, that the warrant wasn't for him.

Attorney Joshua Davis, speaking with Dakota Ward's mother and father by phone during the arrest, heard them screaming to the deputies that they were arresting the wrong man. But it wasn't unusual for suspects to tell deputies they had the wrong guy, Petkovsek said during the internal affairs investigation: It was a "typical response" from people with a warrant.

Meanwhile, a Flagler Beach Police detective and friend of Dakota Ward's family — Liz Williams — heard of Dakota Ward's arrest. In an interview during the internal affairs investigation, the detective "said that Dakota is such a good kid that if law enforcement said he did something he would believe that he did."

She also knew there was a De'Coda Ward in Flagler County. She asked Dakota Ward if he knew who Chad Cox was. He said no. She realized deputies had arrested the wrong man, and contacted the State Attorney's Office March 28. Since the arrest had already been made, she said during the internal affairs investigation, she believed the case was now their responsibility. 

Davis, Dakota Ward's attorney, met with Cox and showed him a printout of Dakota Ward's mugshot, and asked him if the man in the picture was the man who'd hit him. Cox said no, then wrote across the printout, "I Chad Cox am 100% sure this is the wrong guy it’s NOT De’Coda Ward," and signed it. Davis later emailed a photo of the signed printout to the Palm Coast Observer.

"His whole world’s been flipped upside down. This is a Bunnell kid who works a fulltime job at the graveyard shift, and then goes to school and spends weekends fishing with his dad. ... It’s been a complete and total nightmare for him. He's trying to get back to some semblance of being who he used to be." — Joshua Davis, attorney

On March 29, the State Attorney's Office emailed Gore asking for clarification about the name of the person in the Ward case. Gore didn't view the email until March 31, and did not answer because he was off-duty, according to the news release. He'd been pulled from a Field Traning Officer program and from SWAT for "attendance and performance" issues March 30, according to the investigation report.

The State Attorney's Office emailed again March 31, a Thursday, and Gore replied that he was out sick and would respond Monday.

The same day, a Palm Coast Observer reporter who'd been contacted by Davis spoke to a Sheriff's Office spokeswoman by phone and asked about the case. The Sheriff's Office launched an internal affairs investigation and a new criminal investigation about two hours later, Troiano said.

The next day, April 1, the Palm Coast Observer, FlaglerLive.com and the Daytona Beach News-Journal all published articles online about the case, and the Sheriff's Office issued an official apology to Dakota Ward and began removing his name from its website. The State Attorney's Office dropped all charges.

Records associated with the case with Dakota Ward's name on them — including the erroneous charging affidavit — still appeared on the Clerk of Courts website as of April 18. Davis said he was working with Clerk of Courts Gail Wadsworth to have them removed. But even if they were, he said, records associated with the case would remain online, aggregated on private websites. "You go in and Google my kid's name 50 years from now, this arrest is going to pop up," he said. 

Davis called the manner in which the Sheriff's Office reported its internal affairs investigation's findings "irresponsible." Multiple lines in a Sheriff's Office news release noted instances when Dakota Ward had not told Sheriff's Office staff about the possibility of a mistaken identity situation — seemingly implying, Davis said, that Ward was responsible for his own false arrest. Davis cited the following example, a line from the Sheriff's Office news release: "At no time did Dakota Ward tell Petkovsek that there might be confusion with De’Coda Ward," the release stated.

"We can’t say that we’re sorry enough to Dakota Ward. He should never have been arrested. ...  We have safeguards in place, and they were not followed. This is not indicative of our agency." — James Troiano, Sheriff's Office spokesman

"The tone of the whole thing taken as a whole kind of read as if we should have done something to have prevented this," Davis said. "On a very basic level, it’s unfair — that somebody that has the power to come and arrest you at any place and any time can try to flip the script, and say it’s something you failed to do to prevent your own wrongful arrest."

That wasn't the intent of those portions of the news release or the internal affairs investigation report, Troiano said.

"We are in no way pointing blame at this young man — none," he said. In the case of that particular line in the news release, Troiano said, it was included because if Ward had told Petkovsek about the possibility of a mistaken identity case, and Petkovsek failed to take action, Petkovsek would have been in violation of policy.

"Had (Dakota Ward) said that and we still didn’t take action, we would have beeen wrong again," Troiano said. "That’s part of turning over these stones and looking underneath them, because we want to be diligent in our investigation."

The news release also said Davis "refused to participate in this investigation after being asked on several occasions to provide testimony."

For good reason, Davis said: "My ethical obligations are very clear as far as the Bar goes, and that is to represent my client as zealously as I can," he said. "To go and then be interviewed by a detective does nothing to represent my client, period, and could potentially harm our future case."

Troiano said the Sheriff's Office had wanted clarification on who exactly Davis had contacted about the case within the Sheriff's Office, and when.

From its own investigation, the Sheriff's Office had records that Davis had called Paula Rose, with the Sheriff's Office's civil division; and that he'd spoken to Howard Underwood, a deputy. Rose told investigators during the internal affairs investigation that Davis didn't mention a false arrest to her; Underwood remembered that Davis had mentioned a false arrest to him. Underwood told Davis that he had nothing to do with it, and told Davis to speak to the State Attorney's Office. 

But as to the possibility that Dakota Ward had been mixed up with De'Coda Ward, Troiano said, "(Davis) came to (the Palm Coast Observer) with the information, he never came to us with the information. ... He never told Paula Rose, he never told Deputy Underwood, he never told anyone at the Sheriff's Office."

Davis said he'd made it very clear that this was a case of false arrest. "I left a scathing message that not only had they arrested the wrong kid, but now they had come by his house and were harassing him," he said.

The way the Sheriff's Office is presenting the case, Davis said, "It’s mad spin. They’re going to put it however they like it."

Davis has served the Sheriff's Office official notice that his client intends to file suit. It will be for the $200,000 maximum allowed by law, for false arrest and confinement, Davis said. The false arrest will have long-term effects on Dakota Ward's future, Davis said, and the experience was traumatic for Dakota Ward and his family. 

"His whole world’s been flipped upside down," Davis said. "This is a Bunnell kid who works a fulltime job at the graveyard shift, and then goes to school and spends weekends fishing with his dad. ... It’s been a complete and total nightmare for him. He's trying to get back to some semblance of being who he used to be."

The case could be filed in either the local court system or in federal court, Davis said. 

Costs associated with the suit will be carried by the Sheriff's Office's insurance company, Troiano said. 

"We can’t say that we’re sorry enough to Dakota Ward," he said. "He should never have been arrested. ...  We have safeguards in place, and they were not followed. This is not indicative of our agency. We’re all human, we all make mistakes, and certainly this is a mistake that Deputy Gore made, and we hope he will learn from it."

The Sheriff's Office has now formalized what had been an unwritten policy, Troiano said: "We have now mandated that our deputies place in their reports — to include all arrest reports — how they positively identified the suspect."

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