Philly jury awards $10 million in wrongful arrest case

Khanefah Boozer (right) sits with his attorney Robert J. Levant May 10, 2018, after receiving the largest civil verdict against a city police officer. Philadelphia jurors earlier in the day awarded Boozer $10 million after he was wrongly imprisoned for more than three years based upon the officer’s false testimony. In the Center City offices of Feldman Shepherd Wohlgelernter Tanner Weinstock Dodig LLP.

In the largest-ever civil verdict against a city police officer, Philadelphia jurors Thursday awarded $10 million to an Oxford Circle man who was wrongly imprisoned for more than three years based on the officer’s false testimony.

The money was awarded to Khanefah Boozer, 33, who was held in jail on $500,000 bail while he awaited trial for allegedly firing a gun at Officer Ryan Waltman. When Boozer finally had his trial in 2014, another man testified that he, not Boozer, had fired the gun — in the air and not at the officer.

Boozer’s attorney, Robert J. Levant, said at a news conference that the verdict was “a message that should be heard loud and clear throughout the city of Philadelphia, that this will not be tolerated.”

Levant said the case was not properly investigated, that Boozer was “obviously innocent,” and that while he was behind bars on the false testimony of police, his mother and sister died. Boozer, who worked at a Home Depot at the time of his arrest and aspires to be a barber, sat alongside Levant at the news conference but declined to comment.

Lawyers for the city contended that Waltman made an honest mistake in accusing Boozer of firing a gun. Mike Dunn, a spokesman for Mayor Kenney, said the city was “examining all of our options at this time” and planned to appeal.

Waltman, a 10-year veteran of the force, remains employed with a salary of about $75,000, according to payroll records.

The verdict represents a massive payout for an individual case in a police-related matter — more than twice the previous highest award, made to deliveryman Philippe Holland after he was mistakenly shot by city police officers in 2014.

Between 2013 and 2016, the city averaged $9.7 million per year to resolve dozens of police-related civil rights cases filed in civil court, according to city figures. And in fiscal year 2017-18, which ends June 30, the city budgeted $44.9 million for indemnity to cover payouts in lawsuits against all agencies — meaning Boozer’s payout alone would account for 22 percent of that total.

Still, civil rights lawyers said it remained unlikely that Boozer will collect the full $10 million. Attorney Alan L. Yatvin said the city probably will not be held liable for $5 million in punitive damages included in the verdict. A decade ago, in what had been one of the biggest jury verdicts in a police case, jurors awarded $5 million but the plaintiff eventually settled for $500,000.

In his suit, Boozer said he spent the evening of Jan. 22, 2011, with friends, at one point driving through Germantown. According to the suit, one of Boozer’s friends traveling in a separate car had a gun and fired into the air for “amusement.”

Alerted to the gunshots, Waltman pulled over the car driven by Boozer, and accused him of firing the gun, not in the air but at the officer. The suit said Boozer told police the gun actually had been fired by Bruno Rosales, but they never investigated.

Boozer was arrested, charged, and held on $500,000 bail. He couldn’t pay enough to secure his release. In September 2014, when the criminal case finally came to trial, Rosales testified that he fired the gun. Boozer was acquitted of all charges, then filed suit against Waltman and other officers less directly involved in the case. Rosales was never charged in the shooting.

The jury’s award — $5 million for punitive damages and $5 million in compensatory damages — was against Waltman because the city was not named as a defendant. Waltman was represented by a city attorney in the case.

Two other police officers had been named as defendants, but Common Pleas Court Judge Sean F. Kennedy dismissed them from the case.

Civil rights lawyers said Boozer’s case highlighted flaws in Philadelphia’s criminal justice system.

“The system failed him at a number of levels,” said Levant.

Yatvin, who was not involved in Boozer’s case, said even accepting the city’s position that Waltman had mistakenly identified Boozer as the shooter, Boozer should not have been being held in jail more than three years just because he couldn’t post the $500,000 bail.

“This raises the question of why was bail so exorbitant,” Yatvin said. “There should be some introspection here.”

Similarly, he said, when a jury finds that a police officer was not credible, both the police and the District Attorney’s Office should investigate to determine if false testimony by police had been deliberate.

Ben Waxman, a spokesman for District Attorney Larry Krasner — who was not in office when Boozer was charged — said the office planned to review Boozer’s civil and criminal cases in determining how to handle cases involving Waltman moving forward.

Krasner’s office made headlines earlier this year when it disclosed that previous administrations had kept a list of officers deemed too untrustworthy to testify without a supervisor’s approval. Krasner has said his office is working to develop a fuller policy for how to handle such officers moving forward.

Levant said Boozer was “still processing” the verdict, but that Boozer does not harbor ill will against the city or Waltman.

Boozer “certainly hopes that this doesn’t happen to another citizen of Philadelphia,” Levant said.