Updated: 5:37 p.m.
A Philadelphia jury has awarded $10 million to a man after he was jailed for nearly four years awaiting trial for a crime he didn’t commit. The decision follows a white city police officer falsely accusing the man of firing shots at law enforcement.
The sum is the largest-ever jury payout over police abuse in Philadelphia history.
A jury of seven women and five men in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas delivered the historic award to Khanefah Boozer on Thursday following a three-day trial over the January 2011 incident.
On the night in question, Boozer, 33, of North Philadelphia, and three friends were out at a Germantown bar. Boozer, who does not drink, offered to be the designated driver. But his friends insisted they drive themselves in a separate car, so he followed them to make sure they arrived home safely.
When they neared the home of Boozer’s friend on Abbottsford Road, the friend fired several shots into the air. Boozer scolded the shooter, who has been identified as Bruno Rosales, and then drove away.
Not long after that, police stopped Boozer.
Boozer told police he did not have a weapon and did not fire any shots. He told authorities it was likely a friend in the other car had done it out of “drunken and reckless thrill,” his lawyer would later say.
Police investigated the other men and found no weapons and released them. But they arrested Boozer and booked him on a number of violent criminal charges.
“The officers were intent on arresting and charging someone for the shooting and it is apparent that they chose Mr. Boozer because they could assert that he was fleeing the scene in his vehicle,” according to a filing from Boozer’s lawyers in his civil case.
At Boozer’s criminal trial on assaulting a police officer, gun charges and other counts, the officer, Ryan Waltman, testified that Boozer had fired the shots – and not in the air, but at police.
A partner of Waltman’s backed him up, testifying that the smell of gunpowder could be detected on Boozer shortly after his arrest.
Yet no gun shell casings or other ballistic evidence were ever recovered from the scene. In addition, no witnesses backed up the police account. According to a filing in the civil case, Waltman submitted an amended report stating that another individual was standing next to Boozer as he fired shots. An unknown person fled the scene, according to that revised report, suggesting that the individual who escaped took off with the gun.
A jury acquitted Boozer of all the charges, believing his testimony that he never had the gun, nor had he tried to shoot police.
Before his vindication, however, Boozer, who has worked as a carpenter and barber, was incarcerated from January 2011 until September 2014.
At the time, Boozer, a father of a young daughter, was working at Home Depot.
A judge set Boozer’s bail at $500,000, and he could not afford to post the required 10 percent to be released.
“When you’re accused of shooting a Philadelphia police officer, even if you didn’t do it, the bail is going to be set extraordinarily high,” said lawyer Bob Levant, who filed the lawsuit that triggered the $10 million verdict. “And there’s not a process in place to review the facts of the case to see if they’re commensurate with the amount of the bail. So the system failed him at a number of levels.”
While he was incarcerated, Boozer’s mother and sister died. Those facts, his lawyer said, likely weighed in the jury’s mind as they deliberated on the amount of the financial award he deserved.
The civil claims against the police officers included malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, and civil conspiracy.
City of Philadelphia spokesman Mike Dunn stated the city is examining all of its options in the aftermath of the jury award and plans to appeal.
Waltman, who remains on the police force, was not disciplined following Boozer’s acquittal.
City officials pay millions each year settling claims of police abuse and excessive force.
The total of Thursday’s verdict — $5 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages — amounts to what the city typically spends each year to settle such claims.
But this financial amount is distinctive since it resulted from a jury’s decision, not a pretrial settlement agreement.
Addressing reporters after the jury verdict, Levant said he hopes the case sends a message that the citizens of Philadelphia will not tolerate police abusing their authority in the city.
“It’s a message that should be heard loud and clear by Mayor Kenney. It’s a message that should be heard loud and clear by [police] Commissioner Ross. It’s a message that should be heard loud and clear throughout Philadelphia,” Levant said. “That fact that it took a Philadelphia jury returning a $10 million verdict in favor of Mr. Boozer for someone to stop and take a look at this case is highly disturbing.”
Boozer, who sat next to Levant during the news conference but did not speak, hopes to now finish a plan he started before he was arrested on false charges: to open a barber shop in Philadelphia.