Linn County Attorney answers questions about the wrongful arrest that is costing the county $285,000

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Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden. — illustration by Jordan Sellergren

On Wednesday, Linn County announced it would pay $285,000 to Joseph McBride to settle a lawsuit alleging the county and County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden violated McBride’s rights by having him arrested and jailed for more than two months for a crime McBride didn’t commit. McBride had been arrested at his Arizona home in October for a home invasion robbery in Cedar Rapids that occurred early on New Year’s Day 2017. McBride was charged with the crime largely on the strength of the victim saying he recognized McBride in a Facebook photo.

McBride was arrested on Aug. 24, despite having evidence that he was in Arizona at the time of the crime. He was not released until Oct. 31.

Speaking to The Gazette on Thursday, Vander Sanden said, “It’s regretful that Mr. McBride spent that time in jail but this wasn’t done out of malice. This was the information that the victim provided.” Vander Sanden also told the newspaper that he had “relied on the statement of the victim who positively identified the man.”

But according to the lawsuit McBride filed, the claim that the victim had positively identified McBride was one of two “recklessly false statements” Vander Sanden made in the affidavit he submitted for the arrest warrant in the case.

The victim “never positively identified Joseph McBride. [The victim] was never even asked to identify Joseph McBride… [H]e said he was only 90% sure ‘Holiday’ was one of the persons who assaulted him,” the lawsuit alleged. (The name given for the person in the Facebook photo was “Jody Holiday.” Investigators said that McBride sometimes used that name on social media platforms.)

Little Village emailed Vander Sanden to ask about this discrepancy regarding a positive identification. “Initially [the victim] indicated he was 90% certain [McBride] was one of those involved [in the robbery] but as he studied it further he advised police he was 100% sure,” Vander Sanden replied. He also said investigators “showed the FB photo to McBride’s mother who lived in Cedar Rapids and she confirmed it was her son.”

According to the filing in the lawsuit, McBride’s mother “is disabled and has been on disability because of her learning and developmental disabilities since her childhood.” Investigators also said they relied on a statement by McBride’s mother that he lived with her in Cedar Rapids until Feb. 2017, even though public records show that McBride has lived in Arizona since 2015.

The second “recklessly false” statement alleged in the lawsuit involved cell phone records the Linn County Attorney’s Office claimed linked McBride to the crime. According to the affidavit Vander Sanden signed, “Elizabeth Navarro was with the victim in the apartment when the offense occurred and through a check of her phone records and social media, appeared to have collaborated with Foster and McBride to coordinate the robbery.”

But according to McBride’s attorneys,

Nothing in Elizabeth Navarro’s cell phone records connects to Joseph McBride in any manner whatsoever. The only indication that there was any social media connection between Elizabeth Navarro and Joseph McBride was that they, at some point in time, became Facebook ‘friends.’ [emphasis in the original]

Little Village asked Vander Sanden whether McBride appeared in Navarro’s phone records. He did not directly respond to the question. Vander Sanden just restated that McBride was Facebook friends with both Navarro, and another suspect in robbery. He did not assert that there were any Facebook, or other social media, interactions about the crime involving McBride.

In his emailed reply to Little Village, Vander Sanden said, “Something that is getting missed in this litigation is the fact that we had a person who was the victim of a home invasion robbery. The suspect he thought was McBride pistol-whipped him with a handgun causing fractures to his face. We would not have filed if the victim had not indicated he was 100% certain of his identification.”

The victim’s identification was, of course, incorrect. McBride had photos and witnesses proving he was in Arizona at the time of the crime, but was unable to establish his alibi prior to being arrested, because investigators never spoke to him.

Asked if he was aware that investigators had not spoken to McBride when he signed the affidavit for the arrest warrant, Vander Sanden replied, “Police investigators made four attempts to talk to McBride before submitting the case to our office for consideration.”

Two of those attempts involved officers going to addresses in Cedar Rapids where McBride had lived before he moved out of the state. Two visits to the home of McBride’s mother were the other attempts Vander Sanden is referring to. Both Vander Sanden and the lawsuit agree that McBride’s mother told the police she didn’t know how to get in touch with her son.

In announcing the $285,000 settlement last week, Linn County Board of Supervisors President John Harris didn’t address the lawsuit’s claim of “recklessly false statements.” Instead, he portrayed the arrest and jailing of McBride as simply a mistake.

“A person doesn’t like to think that mistakes can be made, but everybody’s human,” he told the Associated Press. “We just have to acknowledge our mistakes, in most cases right them and move on.”

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