Man seeks millions in lawsuit filed over alleged false arrest in Bakersfield

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Attempted rape and false imprisonment charges were dismissed against Byron Willis months after his arrest.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — A man who says he was unlawfully arrested and charged in connection with a 2019 attempted rape in Bakersfield is suing the city and county for millions of dollars in federal court.

Byron Willis is seeking at least $1 million each for loss of earnings, medical and related expenses and general damages, and at least $250,000 for punitive damages, according to an amended complaint filed Nov. 29 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.

The suit alleges false arrest and malicious prosecution. A scheduling conference is scheduled Jan. 13.

Mick Marderosian, outside counsel for the city, and Deputy Kern County Counsel Kyle W. Holmes declined comment.

Ashton R. Watkins, the Los Angeles-based attorney representing Willis, could not be reached.

Willis was arrested Dec. 4, 2019, and remained in custody for nearly 60 days despite telling police he was in Delano at the time of the attack, the suit says. He told police GPS coordinates on his phone could verify his location, according to the suit, and signed a consent form allowing officers to search his phone. He also consented to a DNA swab and offered to take a lie detector test.

“BPD told Mr. Willis that his phone was ‘no longer pertinent to the investigation,’ even though the investigation was less than forty-eight hours old at the time of this comment. BPD had decided, without thoroughly investigating the facts of the case, that Mr. Willis was guilty of the crime and refused to consider any evidence contradicting that belief,” the suit says.

Charges were dismissed about eight months later. The suit says Willis is unemployable due to the publicity surrounding his arrest, including the release of his photo by police.

“Mr. Willis’ reputation has been harmed,” the suit says. “He is still viewed as a rapist and/or pervert.”

The suit has its origins in the report of an attempted rape Dec. 3, 2019, at an apartment complex at Ming Avenue and Stine Road.

Police said Willis, then 25, confronted a woman in a vacant apartment and attempted to sexually assault her, but she was able to fight him away.

The woman picked Willis out of what the suit calls a “highly suggestive” photo lineup despite him being substantially heavier than the attacker described by the woman.

She said her assailant was about 150 pounds and between 5 feet 4 inches and 5 feet six inches, according to the suit. A witness told police the description matched that of a homeless man often seen in the area.

Willis is 5-foot-9 and weighed 203 pounds. He has facial scars which he said are usually the first thing people notice about him, the suit says, yet the description of the attacker didn’t mention scars.

“BPD has a policy, custom or practice of preparing photo lineups without adequate safeguard against misidentification and the use of this policy, custom or practice caused BPD to violate Mr. Willis’ right to be free from unreasonable seizures,” the suit says.

The District Attorney’s office offered Willis two deals, according to the suit. The first required him to plead guilty for a 31-year prison term; the second offer was for 20 years.

Willis rejected them, maintaining his innocence, the suit says.

He was released from jail Jan. 20, 2020, and charges were dismissed July 29, 2020.

By focusing on Willis, the assailant got away and remains a risk to the community, the suit says.

“BPD failed to protect the community from this predator,” the suit says. “BPD failed to protect Mr. Willis from the false charges levied against him.”

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