The San Diego County District Attorney's Office has filed a criminal charge against a former La Mesa Police Department officer who made a controversial arrest of a Black man near a Grossmont trolley station last year.
Former LMPD Officer Matt Dages has been charged with one count of falsifying a police report in connection with to the arrest of 23-year-old Amaurie Johnson on May 27, 2020, District Attorney Summer Stephan announced on Monday.
Dages could face three years in prison if convicted. He is expected to appear remotely in San Diego County court on March 9.
"Everyone is accountable under the law and as we’ve done previously, we will file criminal charges when they are supported by facts and evidence," Stephan said in a written statement. "My office’s Special Operations division of specialized prosecutors and investigators is dedicated to the principles of conducting fair, thorough and independent reviews of public corruption and police misconduct cases with the goal of enhancing public trust and pursuing justice."
The DA said Dages is accused of falsifying the reason Johnson was taken into custody as well as mischaracterizing Johnson's actions that day.
The LMPD did not comment on the circumstances of the case, but provided the following statement from Acting Chief of Police Ray Sweeney:
"We have worked closely with the San Diego District Attorney's Office over the past several months on this matter. The La Mesa Police Department holds each and every member of the Department to the highest standards of integrity in order to protect and serve our community and keep its trust."
Dages was a three-year veteran of the force when he stopped Johnson at the Grossmont Trolley Station platform and accused him of smoking in public. According to Johnson, no evidence of drug paraphernalia was found when officers searched him but he was arrested anyway.
In a social media post in response to the charge, Johnson thanked those who have supported him through the last year.
"I'm thankful for the DA's decision to pursue charges against former officer Dages. Now it's time for this drawn out legal process. I'll do my part to make sure there is justice. Tough times don't last but tough people do," Johnson said.
Following calls from the public, the La Mesa Police Department released body camera footage of the arrest. In it -- as well as in social media video posted by a witness -- Dages and Johnson can be seen arguing at the platform. Johnson tells the officer he was waiting for someone. The officer pushes Johnson onto a bench. More officers arrive.
In one of the videos released by police, Johnson’s friend approaches officers to explain that Johnson was waiting for him to come back from the grocery store.
"(Johnson) is coming to my house,” he can be heard telling police officers on the bodycam video. “As we pull up, (a police officer) is already questioning him like he is in the wrong like he is not supposed to be here.”
Eventually, Johnson was taken into custody on charges of assault on an officer and resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer. More than a week later, LMPD dropped the charges.
Johnson filed a lawsuit against the city of La Mesa, La Mesa Police Department Officer Matt Dages, and six John Does in July 2020. The suit alleges Johnson was arrested without probable cause and further alleges negligence, excessive force, violence because of race and Monell liability.
"I think [filing the charge against Dages] does send a message to the DA's Office is interested in repairing the relationship between the community members and law enforcement and the justice system," Johnson's attorney, Troy Owens said. He added that other charges like assault and battery and false imprisonment should also be filed.
Johnson was "not completely happy when he learned that it was only one charge, but it is a step in the right direction," Owens said.
"I am choosing to be optimistic in the situation and hoping that this is the start for real change," he added.
Activists have pointed out that the arrest of Johnson highlights the targeting of Black men by law enforcement in the U.S. His arrest came as protests against racial injustice reached a peak across the country following the death of George Floyd. User-captured video was posted to social media and quickly went viral, leading to protests in La Mesa.
Dages was placed on leave while an independent review was being conducted and was fired on Aug. 7, 2020. The firing was upheld by a La Mesa review panel in December 2020.