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Lawsuit: Bad police work led to false arrest

Was it confusion over the Hispanic custom of having two surnames, a case of sloppy police work or did Franz Kafka plant an operative in the Hopkins police department?

Those are a few of the questions raised by a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by a man who was jailed on a felony child sex abuse charge after a Hopkins police detective bollixed up an affidavit and put the wrong man’s name on an arrest warrant application.

Bartolo Torres Zavala of Minneapolis asserts claims of deprivation of civil rights, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Detective Mark Kyllo and the city of Hopkins.

Bruce Nestor

Bruce Nestor

According to the suit, Torres was driving with his wife and two young children on February 7, 2015, when he was pulled over by Richfield police for a minor traffic violation. The officer ran his name and date of birth and got a hit for a felony high risk warrant.

Backup police were summoned to the scene, guns were drawn and Torres — all the while proclaiming his innocence — was hauled off to the Hennepin County Jail, where he spent two days behind bars before being released on $20,000 bond.

Torres, it turned out, had nothing to with the crime in question. The subject of that investigation was an individual named Bartolo Zavala Reyes.

Aside from sharing two of three names and Hispanic heritage, the two men had little in common. As Torres’ attorney Bruce Nestor noted, Torres is 34, stocky and has a full head of hair, while Zavala is 49, taller and bald.

So what the heck happened?

Attorney Mark Hodkinson of Bassford Remele, who is representing the city and the detective, offered a terse response (by way of email) on behalf of his clients: “It is not in anyone’s best interests to comment on a newly filed, pending lawsuit.”

In an answer filed with the court, however, Hodkinson characterized the blunder as inadvertent and asserted that Torres isn’t entitled to any compensation.

“Officer Kyllo was acting upon good faith and upon reasonable belief that his conduct was lawful, proper, reasonable, and in compliance with the laws of the State of Minnesota and the United State of America,” he wrote.

For his part, Nestor said he never had a mistaken identity case so egregious. For one thing, he noted, Kyllo had interviewed Zavala in person twice before applying for the warrant for Torres.

“Certainly, I’ve run across people where someone else uses their name in a traffic stop and they get picked up on a warrant,” he said. “I’ve had clients whose warrants should have been canceled but the computers weren’t updated, so they get picked up when they should not have been. But nothing like this.”

Isn’t that just sloppy police work?

“We brought a constitutional claim that it went beyond sloppiness, that it was reckless. I don’t know that it was knowing and intentional but it gets close,” said Nestor.

“What’s particularly troublesome is the names weren’t identical,” he added. “It’s not racism but it is cultural unawareness. My client would not be known as Bartolo Zavala, he would be Bartolo Torres, because you use the first last name in Latin America.”

Nestor said the experience humiliated his client and terrified his family, especially the children. Torres also lost his job while behind bars, he added.

Did Torres ever receive an apology? Not according to Nestor.

About a month after his arrest, however, Torres’ public defender, Mark J. Miller, got the charges against his client dismissed.

Zavala, meanwhile, remains behind bars. After pleading guilty to a charge of second-degree criminal sexual conduct in an unrelated case in Ramsey County, he was sentenced to one year in jail and 10 years of probation, with a 36-month suspended sentence, for repeatedly molesting an underage female relative.

Last December, he entered a plea agreement in the Hopkins case which calls for 10-year sentence. In that case, Zavala was accused of raping a different female relative, who was 7 years old at the time, while staying at her family’s home.

Nestor’s co-counsel in the lawsuit is Tim Philliips.

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