A former La Mesa police officer lied on a police report to justify what was becoming a very public and controversial arrest, a prosecutor alleged Wednesday, while a defense attorney said his client's report was a completely truthful account that sustained multiple reviews by his superiors despite the scrutiny the police department was under.
Opening statements and testimony began in the trial of Matthew Dages, who is accused of lying about the basis of his May 27, 2020, arrest of Amaurie Johnson, a young Black man who was waiting for friends outside an apartment complex near the Grossmont Transit Center.
Johnson's arrest was captured on video and circulated over social media, sparking particular condemnation in the wake of the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which occurred two days earlier.
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Dages, who is white, is charged with a felony count of filing a false police report and could face up to three years in prison if convicted. He remains out of custody.
Dages was taking part in a "fare compliance operation" with other officers at the nearby trolley station and alleged in his report that he initially contacted Johnson for smoking in public and failing to have a trolley fare while being in a "fare paid zone."
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Deputy District Attorney Judy Taschner told an El Cajon jury that Johnson was holding a cell phone and that no lighter, cigarettes or other smoking implements were found on his person following his arrest.
The prosecutor said the interaction between Johnson and the officer escalated into an argument when Dages would not let Johnson leave the scene after his friends arrived.
Videos of the incident show Dages pushing Johnson into a seated position, which Taschner said occurred multiple times. Dages alleged in his report that Johnson balled his fists, took a "bladed stance" and struck him on the arm.
According to Taschner, Dages "confronted, detained and arrested a young man who had done nothing wrong and then he lied about it in his police report."
Johnson was later arrested on suspicion of assault on an officer, and resisting, delaying and obstructing an officer.
He was released on a misdemeanor citation, but the police department later announced it would not be seeking charges against Johnson, who has filed a federal lawsuit against Dages and the city of La Mesa.
Dages, who had been employed by the department since 2018, was fired a few months later.
Dages' attorney, Jeremiah Sullivan, said jurors would see Dages did nothing wrong "when you take off the aggressive lens from this case."
The attorney said that from Dages' vantage point, Johnson was holding what appeared to be a smoking device to his mouth. He said Johnson was also in an area where people cannot loiter without a fare or bus pass and lied to Dages by claiming he was a resident of the apartment complex, but later admitted he did not live there.
When Johnson's friends arrived, Sullivan said, the situation "changed drastically," with Johnson and his friends screaming and cursing at Dages.
At some point, Sullivan said, Johnson "decides to leave," though Dages was not finished investigating. The attorney said Sullivan put his hands on Johnson's shirt to prevent him from leaving, then Johnson put his hands on Dages, threatened him and balled his fists, "almost winding up for a haymaker."
When videos of the incident went viral, Sullivan said, the arrest was "heavily scrutinized" and that Dages' superiors instructed him to edit his report three separate times.
Sullivan said that despite his superiors having seen the video and their multiple demands for edits, Dages was not instructed to remove references to balled fists, a bladed stance or the fare paid zone.
"Officer Dages absolutely submitted a 100% truthful and accurate report," Sullivan told jurors.