Scottsdale police: Officers violated department policy arresting woman wrongly accused of hit and run

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Attorney Benjamin Taylor (center) speaks during a press conference for Yessenia Garcia (right) on Aug. 31, 2021, at the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Courthouse plaza at 401 W. Washington St. in Phoenix. Looking on is Attorney Anthony Ramirez (left).
Attorney Benjamin Taylor (center) speaks during a press conference for Yessenia Garcia (right) on Aug. 31, 2021, at the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Courthouse plaza at 401 W. Washington St. in Phoenix. Looking on is Attorney Anthony Ramirez (left).

Scottsdale police officers violated department policy when arresting a woman who was wrongly accused of hit-and-run, a department investigation concludes.

Yessenia Garcia filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city, the police department and six officers last year after she was arrested in 2020 for a hit-and-run in Old Town she had proof she didn't commit.

After her story came out in the press last summer, Scottsdale police Chief Jeff Walther announced the department would conduct an internal investigation into the incident.

The investigation showed there was probable cause for Garcia's arrest but some of the officers involved in the incident violated department policy and should have conducted a more thorough follow-up investigation, the department announced Tuesday.

Police said the officers "who were found to have violated policy or fell short of department expectations received some degree of discipline or counseling depending on the severity of their policy violation."

Scottsdale police spokesperson Sgt. Kevin Quon declined to answer how many officers were disciplined or who they were. He also did not say which department policies were violated.

But the two officers who received the most serious discipline faced a 40-hour and a 20-hour unpaid suspension, Quon said.

Garcia's attorney, Benjamin Taylor, told The Arizona Republic the results of the investigation are long overdue and it doesn't come as a surprise the "police department's unwarranted harassment of Ms. Garcia resulted in a mild reprimand for the officers involved."

"We are glad that they (police department) finally came out and said something, but this is a small, mild reprimand for what they did to her and how they treated her," he said. "The officers who treated her badly should be fired."

The six officers named in the lawsuit are Ben Roberson, Kavon Attarpour, Bryan Steel, Nicolas Fay, Craig Malley and John Ghiglia.

Walther recognized the department "made some mistakes, plain and simple."

"We are not infallible and any expectation of such is unrealistic. I remain committed to maintaining a strong culture of accountability, transparency and professionalism," he said in a prepared statement. "When employees fall short of those standards, there are consequences. Those consequences will always be in line with the level of misconduct identified. In this case, I am confident in the investigation's findings and that our employees did not demonstrate malice or ill intent."

The chief added that it doesn't change how Garcia was affected and "for that she has my most sincere apologies."

Garcia is seeking $300,000 and punitive damages against the officers involved in her arrest.

The lawsuit is still ongoing and the judge has not issued any rulings yet.

A spokesperson for Scottsdale said the investigation is completely separate from the lawsuit against the city and shouldn't have any legal impact.

"The investigation determined that the officers acted with probable cause and with no malice or ill intent," Kelly Corsette said. "This meets all related legal requirements. Because no laws were broken, the internal investigation should have no impact on the legal case."

Corsette also declined to say how many and which officers were disciplined.

What happened that night in Old Town

Yessenia Garcia's found her car damaged after a night out in Old Town. After calling the police's attention to her car, she was falsely accused of a hit-and-run and placed under arrest.
Yessenia Garcia's found her car damaged after a night out in Old Town. After calling the police's attention to her car, she was falsely accused of a hit-and-run and placed under arrest.

Shortly before 9 p.m. on May 24, 2020, Garcia parked her car by the Galleria Corporate Center in Old Town. She went to two nearby bars with her boyfriend and friends, and had three drinks, before she arrived back at her car shortly after 11:10 p.m. and found the windshield damaged, according to her attorneys.

Surveillance footage of the parking lot shows her car getting damaged by a man who jumped on the hood and stomped on the windshield around 10 p.m., according to court records.

Scottsdale police officers started investigating a hit-and-run that took place on Sixth Avenue on the north side of VIP Spa Massage around 10:50 p.m., according to the police report of the incident.

Court records say that despite surveillance footage showing her car remained parked at the time of the hit-and-run and that she was actually the victim of a property crime, she was booked into jail for possession of drug paraphernalia, driving under the influence and failure to stop at the scene of an accident causing injury or death.

Quon said no citations were issued to Garcia and no charges were brought. But Roberson wrote in the report the victim of the hit-and-run did not want to prosecute, preventing the department from gathering more evidence against Garcia.

“Without the evidence to compare the windshield with and the victim not aiding in prosecution, no charges will be filed in this case,” he wrote.

Taylor said the incident was traumatizing for Garcia, who was not only wrongfully arrested but also had her mugshot released and published on the internet the day after her arrest.

Quon also said officers did not have any information from the Galleria security video due to technical difficulties in accessing the video at that time.

Bodycam footage of the incident shows Fay going to the Galleria and reviewing surveillance video of the parking lot. He later wrote in the police report that he saw Garcia’s car being parked earlier that night but “the rest of the video review was inconclusive to show if the vehicle had left and come back or remained there the entire time based on the constant pan of the camera.”

Garcia's attorneys say in the lawsuit that her car "is never out of frame for longer than 40 seconds, which would easily have been observed by Officer Fay after a few minutes of watching the constant, repeated pattern of the camera movement.”

Reach the reporter at rclo@arizonarepublic.com or at 480-267-4703. Follow her on Twitter @renataclo.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Scottsdale officers violated policy arresting wrongly accused woman

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