An unnamed informant passed along the tip: A guy nicknamed Kid was dealing meth. The tipster told the cops that he thought Kid's real first name was Steve.
That information, with Kid's phone number, went from the Colorado Springs Police Department to Detective R.A. Yohn, with the Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Division. On July 11, 2011, Yohn called to set up a buy.
According to Yohn's arrest affidavit, it happened the next day at a local Safeway. Though Yohn wasn't certain, it appeared that Kid arrived in a green Toyota 4-Runner; Yohn jotted down the license-plate number.
Once inside Yohn's car, with other officers performing surveillance, Kid sold her an 8-ball; a similar transaction took place days later.
According to the arrest affidavit, Yohn searched the CSPD photo database for a white male, ages 25 to 28, first name Steve. She ID'd Stephen Lane as Kid.
Lane had joined the CSPD's database a few years back, on charges later dismissed. Soon after, according to his attorney, Richard Liechty, Lane took a job with a military contractor and moved out of state.
On April 4 of this year, he was arrested in Virginia and brought to Colorado Springs.
"The whole reason my client was nabbed," Liechty says, "was because this anonymous informant said, 'I think Kid's name is Steve.'"
The Fourth Judicial District Attorney dropped the case against Lane on April 30.
But now Lane and Liechty are taking Yohn, and the city of Colorado Springs, to U.S. District Court, claiming Lane's constitutional rights were violated and that he's "entitled to his costs and attorney's fees," which together amount to $14,000.
If this sounds familiar, it's because a nearly identical incident occurred in 2010, when a young man named Joseph Martinez was arrested by Metro VNI solely on a detective's visual ID ("Would you please look at this?" News, March 31, 2011). He endured 13 months of possible prosecution before his case was dropped.
Interestingly, in both cases, the suspects had highly visible tattoos — Kid's was reportedly on his neck — and in both cases, the guys apprehended had no such tattoos.
TJ Shull, a former private investigator and retired deputy with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, worked hard to clear Martinez's name. Apprised of Lane's story, he says, "This is bizarre. I thought Joseph Martinez's case was an anomaly, but apparently not."
In an e-mail, CSPD spokeswoman Barbara Miller states that detectives develop probable cause "to the extent possible based on the nature of the operation(s). Detectives are very sensitive to the constitutional rights of all citizens and would not arbitrarily ever misidentify someone."
While Shull says that he understands Metro VNI is under pressure to make drug busts, "You got to have something more to corroborate where your investigation is taking you. You have to have positive ID, you ought to have someone do a lineup and say, 'Yeah, that's him.' Fingerprints, DNA, something."
This is Liechty's argument as well. He asks: Did Yohn investigate whether Lane was connected to the phone number Kid used? Did she look into who owned the 4-Runner, or attempt to lift fingerprints?
"She had so many opportunities," he says, "at least to rule my guy out."
Liechty is targeting CSPD because, he argues, "it failed to train the officers to do at least one additional confirmation of identity," he writes in his complaint, "when the only identity was based upon a two-year-old mugshot from an array of photos originally screened via a possible first name given by an informant of unknown reliability."