A former La Mesa police officer was ordered Wednesday to stand trial on a felony charge of filing a false police report in connection with the controversial arrest of a young man near the Grossmont trolley station last year.
Matthew Dages is charged in connection with the May 27, 2020, arrest of Amaurie Johnson, which was captured on video and circulated over social media, sparking local protests in the wake of the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Dages is accused of “falsifying the reason for Johnson’s detention as well as his actions” and faces up to three years in state prison if convicted, according to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.
Dages said he initially contacted Johnson for smoking in public and failing to pay a trolley fare while being in a “paid fare zone.”
Johnson testified Wednesday that he was waiting to be picked up by friends and only had his cell phone in his hands when he was approached by Dages. No lighter, cigarettes or other smoking implements were found on his person.
Their interaction escalated into an argument and videos of the incident show Dages pushing Johnson into a seated position. Dages alleged in his report that Johnson struck him on the arm, an allegation Johnson denies.
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.
Deputy District Attorney Judy Taschner alleged during Dages’ preliminary hearing that the former officer falsely stated why he was contacting Johnson in order to justify an arrest that was caught on tape and drawing attention in the general public.
“Officer Dages knew that this case was under scrutiny, that this incident was under scrutiny. That video went viral almost immediately and he knew he had to give a reason to justify and to come up with something for why he went after this young man who was standing there, doing nothing,” Taschner said.
The prosecutor said police reports “don’t have to be perfect. People make mistakes. But it has to be honest, an honest recitation of what occurred.”
Dages’ attorney, Kasey Castillo, argued the prosecution had not proven that any inconsistencies in the report were intentional and alleged Dages acted reasonably given his perception of the incident.
“There is no intent to deceive on the part of Officer Dages and the prosecution cannot prove that,” Castillo said. “The prosecution cannot show that he intentionally misrepresented any fact. What we have is the police report of what Officer Dages believed he witnessed and what Officer Dages did, and in that order.”
Castillo also argued that Johnson pushed Dages and was justifiably arrested for assault and resisting arrest.
Following arguments from both attorneys, San Diego Superior Court Judge Patricia Cookson asked for a copy of Dages’ report and read it to herself.
Following the reading, she said “it does not appear to be a truthful account of the interaction between the officer and Mr. Johnson” and held Dages to answer on the felony charge.
Dages remains out of custody.
In a statement released after the preliminary hearing, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said, “As prosecutors we follow the evidence and the law when making charging decisions. When crimes are committed by police officers in a position of public trust, we have a duty to hold those individuals accountable when we are able to prove criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Dages, who had been employed by the department since 2018, was fired last August, and the firing was later upheld by the city’s Personnel Appeals Board.
In a termination letter issued last summer by then-police chief Walt Vasquez, the now-retired department head listed “false and misleading statements” in Dages’ report as part of the reason for his firing. Those statements included allegedly false determinations that Johnson was smoking and committed a fare evasion violation, as well as statements that Johnson balled his fists and took a “bladed stance” toward Dages during the encounter.
The letter stated that Dages also failed to activate his body-worn camera in a timely fashion during the arrest and “directed profane, insolent language and made discourteous comments” to Johnson.
Dages later filed court papers seeking to have the city and the appeals board “set aside their decision and the discipline.” The request seeks for Dages to be reinstated and to restore ” all back pay and benefits lost, with interest.”