Phoenix Prevails in Wrongful Arrest Suit Over Arson Case

A lawsuit filed against the City of Phoenix by man who spent 14 months in jail on arson charges for an accidental fire, has been dismissed. Carl Vincent Ball Caples claimed the city failed to hire properly trained investigators, failed to provide the investigators with proper training, and permitted them to use outdated and discredited investigation techniques leading to his wrongful arrest and incarceration in 2009.

A subsequent investigation concluded the fire was electrical in nature and accidental, a finding that led prosecutors to dismiss the charges. Caples, a former law enforcement officer from Mississippi, could not afford bail and served 14 months in prison while the case wound itself through the system. The county attorney considered prosecuting the arson investigators for false swearing in the Caples case and another one, but ultimately declined to do so.

The case was originally filed in Maricopia County Superior Court in 2014, but removed to US District Court due to allegations that Caples’ civil rights were violated. The district court dismissed the suit in 2018, finding that Caples’ claims were time-barred by Arizona’s two-year statute of limitation for personal injury claims.

Caples appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, claiming that he did not become aware that his civil rights were violated until an investigative report into problems within Phoenix’s fire investigation division was released in 2014. He claimed the two-year statute should have run from the date of discovery, not the date of the harm occurred.

In ruling in favor of the city, the 9th Circuit held:

  • Caples argues that his claim accrued when it became clear that the harm he suffered was the consequence of a municipal policy or custom.
  • This court has not yet considered the delayed accrual theory proposed by Caples.
  • However, we need not do so in this case because Caples’ claim was untimely even under delayed accrual.
  • Caples alleges that he learned his arrest was the result of an unlawful policy or custom in October 2014, when the City released a report providing what Caples describes as the “essential factual basis” for his Monell claim.
  • Specifically, the report allegedly proved that Caples was just one of several people wrongly accused of arson by the Phoenix Fire Department (“PFD”), and that the PFD’s accelerant-detecting dog program was so flawed that the PFD had to “entirely revamp” the program.
  • However, the record shows that Caples’ criminal defense lawyer learned those same allegedly essential facts while litigating Caples’ criminal case in 2010.
  • It is undisputed that by September 2010 at the latest, Caples’ lawyer knew the essential facts that allegedly prove the existence of an unlawful municipal policy or custom.
  • Caples is therefore considered to have received notice of those facts by September 2010.
  • He did not file his complaint until 2014.
  • The complaint was untimely under Arizona’s two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims.

Here is a copy of the decision.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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