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Woman, City Settle False Arrest Suit

By Scott Sandlin
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    She shopped at Wal-Mart, got her driver's license at MVD Express and banked at a credit union.
    Nothing noteworthy, but these three choices led to handcuffs and, ultimately, a $100,000 settlement between the city of Albuquerque and a local woman.
    Renae Harbin sat handcuffed at a West Side Wal-Mart in 2004 because of questions about a $208 check she'd written. A cashier's concerns prompted a call to city police, and Harbin was cuffed with little or no explanation by the responding officer, who told her she was under arrest for a felony.
    "I sat there the whole time believing I was going to jail, because I was never told different," she said Friday, after agreeing to settle her lawsuit with the city for $100,000, including attorney fees and costs.
    "I just sat there thinking, 'I can't prove differently,' '' she said. "I was very, very scared because I didn't know what was going on."
    A federal jury earlier this month awarded Harbin $15,000 in damages for a civil rights violation by the Albuquerque Police Department. Under federal law, she was also entitled to attorney fees from the defendant.
    The verdict against the city came after a federal magistrate judge ruled that Harbin had been subjected to false arrest in 2004.
    But Harbin on Friday agreed to settle her claims, including attorney fees and costs. In exchange, all parties will drop their appeal rights and the judgment will be set aside, according to her attorneys, Zachary Ives and Hope Eckert.
    Assistant City Attorney Peter Pierotti had filed a post-trial motion seeking a new trial or an offset of the judgment amount because Harbin had previously settled with two other defendants, MVD Express and Wal-Mart, but mention of those settlements was excluded and the amounts were not disclosed.
    According to court documents, Harbin was a regular shopper at the Coors Wal-Mart before the incident, writing checks from the same legitimate account that became the focus of the lawsuit.
    On Dec. 8, 2004, she wrote a check for $208 for groceries and art supplies. Because the amount exceeded $200, the cashier asked for a driver's license.
    Harbin produced hers, not knowing that it was missing a hologram. That made the cashier suspicious, and the concern was fueled by an outdated phone number for the credit union that appeared on Harbin's checks.
    Because of delays verifying the check, Harbin went to the customer service desk and offered to pay with a debit card instead, according to court documents. But that offer was ignored, and a Wal-Mart employee called police.
    The APD officer who arrived at Wal-Mart, Esther Garcia, cuffed Harbin without attempting to verify the legitimacy of the driver's license, according to an opinion by U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie Smith.
    Smith granted summary judgment to Harbin on her false arrest claim while dismissing a claim of excessive force. That meant city liability was established, and the jury that heard the case was considering only damages.
    Harbin said she was shocked and scared because she didn't know what was happening to her.
    Garcia took her to the "loss prevention room," a security area, where she was advised of her rights. She remained for 45 minutes while police investigated.
    "Then the encounter ended as inexplicably as it began," Smith's opinion said.
    Harbin said in a phone interview that, when she was finally freed, she was told that the event would be written up as an "incident."
    City defendants agreed with Harbin's version of the facts but sought to portray them as an emergency situation, Smith said.
    Harbin, while loudly questioning what was happening, didn't resist being handcuffed or attempt to flee, the judge noted.
    "A generalized suspicion that a person is attempting to use a fraudulent check or driver's license ... is not enough to justify the immediate intrusive use of handcuffs," Smith wrote.