Closing arguments were delivered Wednesday in the trial of a former La Mesa police officer charged with lying on a police report in connection with his high-profile arrest of a young Black man near the Grossmont Transit Center.
Matthew Dages is accused of lying about the basis of his May 27, 2020, arrest of Amaurie Johnson, which sparked protests in the East County city when a video of the arrest went viral.
Dages, who was fired by the La Mesa Police Department months after the arrest, faces three years in prison if convicted of a felony count of filing a false report.
Starting Thursday, an El Cajon jury will begin deliberating whether Dages lied in his report when he wrote that he saw Johnson smoking, lacking a trolley fare while being in a “fare paid zone,” and then becoming combative once their encounter escalated into an argument.
Dages alleged he told Johnson he wasn’t allowed to smoke in the area, then asked if Johnson lived at the apartment complex nearby. Though Johnson initially said he did live there, he later admitted he was waiting for friends to pick him up.
Prosecutors allege the interaction escalated into an argument when Dages would not let Johnson leave the scene after his friends arrived.
Videos of the incident show Dages pushing Johnson into a seated position and pushing him down again after Johnson stood up. Dages alleged in his report that Johnson balled his fists and took a “bladed stance” towards him, which prosecutors and Johnson dispute.
Johnson was ultimately arrested on suspicion of assault on an officer, and resisting, delaying and obstructing an officer, and was released on a misdemeanor citation.
The police department later announced it would not be seeking charges against Johnson, who has filed a federal lawsuit against Dages and La Mesa.
Johnson’s arrest occurred two days after the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and days after his arrest, a protest held at La Mesa police headquarters devolved into looting and rioting after dark.
Deputy District Attorney Fiona Dunleavy alleged that due to “what was going on in the world, in our country” at the time, the police department was under a microscope, prompting Dages to falsify his report in order to justify the arrest.
Prosecutors say Johnson was holding a cellphone and that no lighter, cigarettes or other smoking implements were ever found on his person. Dunleavy alleged that Dages was also aware that the area Johnson was standing in was not a fare paid zone, and that Dages had previously contacted people for fare violations and directed them to the area near where he encountered Johnson.
Defense attorney Joshua Visco argued the prosecution had not proven that Dages intentionally lied in any portion of the report.
Visco said that whether or not Johnson was smoking, Dages reasonably believed he saw Johnson put something up to his mouth from his vantage point across the street.
Dages testified on Wednesday that though no smoking paraphernalia was found on Johnson, “I saw a (smoking) device in his hand.”
Visco also said there was confusion even among officers regarding the exact boundaries of the fare paid zone, and contended Dages did not lie when he stated that he believed Johnson was within the zone without a fare.
According to testimony, Dages’ superiors asked him to revise and edit his police report multiple times.
Dunleavy alleged that the scrutiny the department faced over the viral video led police brass to demand further revisions to justify Dages’ use of force.
Visco argued the multiple revisions was further evidence that Dages’ report was legitimate. He argued that the department heads were well aware of the video proliferated over social media and the potential fallout, yet saw nothing amiss regarding Dages’ use of force, or his assessments of Johnson smoking and being in the fare paid zone.
Visco said, “But then after the decision burns them, now there’s a problem with the report?”
City News Service contributed to this article.