An Atlanta-area youth was assaulted by a DeKalb County police officer, arrested, and served two years in a juvenile correctional facility, all for a crime he did not commit, according to a lawsuit filed in DeKalb County State Court on Tuesday. But what’s worse, the complaint claims, is that this wrongful incarceration may not have been an isolated oversight, but rather the result of problems endemic in the DeKalb juvenile justice system.
The suit against DeKalb County and several current and former DeKalb County police officers, including retired Chief William O’Brien, was filed on behalf of Antwan Wheeler, now eighteen years old. Three years ago, on December 23, 2010, a woman on a residential stretch of Ellenwood in South DeKalb called 911 to report a suspicious vehicle parked on the street with three black men getting out. When DeKalb officers arrived, just after 8 p.m., they identified the car—a 2004 Dodge Stratus—as one that had been reported stolen three days earlier. Three young men who were near the car loosely matched the description of the suspects provided by the caller. One of those young men was Wheeler, who was then fifteen.
According to the lawsuit, this is what happened next: DeKalb officers cuffed Wheeler and placed him in the back of a squad car while they questioned the other two youths. Moments later, an officer identified in the complaint as Q.D. Hudson approached the squad car, opened the door, slipped gloves on his hands and, pounding his fist, told Wheeler, “We’re gonna have some fun now.” Hudson pulled the handcuffed teen from the back seat, slammed him against the outside of the car, punched him in the stomach, and beat him about the head and body. Then Hudson took Wheeler to police headquarters where he was processed as a juvenile offender.
Wheeler had an extensive criminal record dating back to age eleven, including felony convictions of robbery and attempted burglary, a probation violation, as well as a dozen other charges scattered over the previous two years—charges that were eventually dismissed. One of those was theft by receiving a motor vehicle from September 2009 that was dropped for want of prosecution. Wheeler’s rap sheet likely did him no favors when he went to juvenile court and pleaded not guilty on the car charge. With no evidence to contradict Hudson’s testimony that he saw the teen in the stolen Dodge on the night before Christmas Eve, Wheeler was convicted and sentenced to two years in juvenile detention center.
In July 2012, about halfway through his sentence at Eastman Regional Youth Detention Center southeast of Macon, Wheeler had some unexpected visitors. DeKalb Police Internal Affairs was looking into reports of misconduct by Officer Hudson, and Wheeler’s auto theft arrest had come up. Wheeler told the IAD officers about the alleged assault. But IAD soon found other things wrong with the case. After arresting Wheeler and one of his friends, Hudson had brought the case to two detectives in the auto theft unit. According to an Internal Affairs report obtained by Wheeler’s attorney, Mike Puglise, Hudson had trouble keeping his story straight when relating it to the two auto theft detectives. At first, he told the detectives he had arrived at the scene to find Wheeler inside the stolen Dodge. But when confronted with other information obtained by the detectives, Hudson said that he actually found the three youths crouched next to the vehicle. Eventually, according to the IAD report, the officer admitted that he only observed them walking away from the car. When the detectives followed up with the 911 caller, she was unable to positively identify the three suspects she saw getting out of the car.
That should have been enough to free Antwan Wheeler before he ever went before a judge. The reason it was not, according to the lawsuit and Puglise, is because the auto theft detectives never reported the holes they found in Hudson’s arrest. There was no supplemental documentation to Hudson’s initial incident report, which listed Wheeler as the driver of the stolen vehicle. So when Wheeler went to trial, neither the prosecution nor the defense was aware of the potentially exculpatory evidence in the case. According to the IAD report on this case, Hudson later “admitted to lying to the auto theft detectives, falsifying his police report, and giving false testimony at Antwan Wheeler’s trial.”
Hudson resigned from the force in lieu of termination while under IAD investigation in August 2012. Atlanta magazine was unable to reach Officer Hudson, named as a defendant in the lawsuit, for comment, and Burke Brennan, chief communications officer for DeKalb County, says that the county does not comment on pending litigation. But the reason the officer was able to almost single-handedly convict Wheeler, Puglise says, is because the auto theft detectives did not complete a report to supplement (and in this case, contradict) Hudson’s. And what’s worse, their failure to do so may have been the rule rather than the exception. The IAD investigation found that not submitting these supplemental reports might be, more or less, an unwritten department policy. “It has been an accepted practice in the Auto Theft Unit…to not always complete a court supplemental when a juvenile has been arrested,” reads a memo from Sgt. J.E. Smith to IAD, provided by Puglise. “Other units also do this…A large number of auto theft cases involving juveniles are not complex and the incident report has the majority of the information needed by Juvenile Court investigators.”
IAD found the two auto theft detectives “in violation of neglect of duty” in this case and suspended them for two days. But nothing was ever done about Antwan Wheeler. The teen served out his sentence and was released this past July. He moved to Marietta where he has strung together small jobs and studied for his GED. Two months ago he met Puglise, who was representing one of the auto theft detectives in an appeal of his suspension and wanted to interview the teen. That’s when Wheeler retained Puglise, who says the lawsuit is about restitution for Wheeler, but it’s also about fixing the system. If detectives go to the trouble of collecting additional information in the course of an arrest, they should be required to make it part of a complete record so, if for no other reason, a public defender representing a poor, scared teenager like Wheeler will be able to fight for the proper disposition. As Puglise says, “How many more Antwan Wheelers are there?”