MERCED -- A federal judge dismissed the charges in a lawsuit brought by the late Richard Byrd against Atwater and one of its reserve officers.
The city and officer were connected to a land deal that included the sheriff, former district attorney and other investors, the lawsuit had claimed. Byrd sued a city, county, all manner of law enforcement officials and even one of his own former lawyers.
U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wagner ruled last week that there was no evidence to support false arrest charges and malicious prosecution charges alleged by Byrd, who died last month.
"It was meritless from the outset," Atwater's attorney Paul Scheele said. "This ruling confirms that."
Byrd, and now his family, are suing Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin, former District Attorney Gordon Spencer and other Merced investors, who bought his land in 2004 while he was in jail on charges of bribing an officer. The lawsuit, filed in 2006, has slowly been weaving its way through the Eastern District Court of California in Fresno.
Lawyers for the other defendants hailed the decision as evidence that all of Byrd's claims will prove bogus.
"It's another example of why they do not have a case," said attorney Terence Cassidy, who represents Pazin.
The federal judge in Fresno is scheduled to hear arguments May 5 for whether the charges against Pazin should go to trial. Cassidy said he's confident the judge will rule in favor of the sheriff.
"He will be completely exonerated by the district court," Cassidy said.
Byrd's children, meanwhile, are moving forward with the lawsuit, daughter Linda Roybal said, directing all other questions to attorney Kevin Little.
To keep Atwater and Officer Michael Teater in the lawsuit, Little said he would have needed to get a state court to overturn the conviction stemming from bribing an officer. The rest of the case will move forward, he promised.
"We feel confident that the Byrd estate has valid claims that will be ruled on by a jury," Little said.
Byrd, a former Merced College police chief who later started his own private investigations firm, filed the suit in July 2006.
In short, Byrd's suit claims that he was wrongly imprisoned on a fabricated charge of bribing an officer to get personal information about a sheriff's deputy who'd arrested him for drunken driving with a plan for revenge.
While he was in jail, Spencer, Pazin, developer Greg Hostetler and others allegedly conspired to force Byrd into selling them a valuable piece of land for $1.3 million, far less than it was worth, according to court filings.
Two years after the land deal closed, Byrd filed suit against all the deal's investors, as well as his own agent in it; the Atwater police officer who arrested him; Merced County; the city of Atwater and the lawyer who represented Byrd after his 2004 arrest, C. Logan McKechnie.
Byrd's suit alleges that the investors conspired to rip him off. It says Spencer and Pazin forced Byrd into selling the land when they "pursued and manipulated the criminal charges" against him for their "own economic gain," purposely keeping Byrd in jail until the deal had closed.
Besides losing his land, Byrd says his business went under as a result of the time he spent in jail.
His suit asks the court to award compensatory and punitive damages and to reverse the land deal. It also seeks to expunge Byrd's criminal record.
Defendants in the suit say Byrd's allegations are totally false. They say his lawsuit fails to offer evidence supporting his claims and that because he signed off on the land deal, he has no right to seek damages now.
Most of the defendants have filed motions aimed at ending the suit or dismissing its claims against them. McKechnie, and now Atwater and its officer, have been successful.