An Eagle Scout taken into custody while caring for a disabled 14-year-old boy is suing a Southern California city to clear his name after police publicly shamed him for a sex crime that never happened.
Sam Couch was arrested in 2012 in an undercover sting targeting lewd conduct in a Manhattan Beach public restroom.
Facing a seven-figure federal civil rights lawsuit, the Manhattan Beach City Council Tuesday evening discussed the case with legal counsel behind closed doors.
The young man caught up in the sting said he's willing to reduce his demand for damages, if the city would only admit its mistakes and cooperate with him in his effort to have a court issue a finding that he is factually innocent.
As his project to become an Eagle Scout, Couch served as a caregiver for disabled children. He continued to do so as a student at El Camino College.
In March, 2012, Couch took one of his charges – a 14-year-old boy diagnosed with Prader-Willi Syndrome – to the Manhattan Beach public library, and then to the Strand for a walk on the beach. At the foot of Marine Avenue, the boy asked to use the restroom, where unknown to them, police were conducting an undercover operation.
The boy went into the end stall. As Couch waited in the changing area, a man went into the next stall and looked through a peephole at the boy, Couch told NBC4 via satellite from Philadelphia, where he now is attending college.
"He was horrified and screamed," Couch recalled. The boy rushed out of the stall, and Couch led him outside, with the man following.
As Couch and the boy tried to leave, they were confronted by five men who Couch learned were undercover officers. They tackled him.
Couch acknowledged the undercover officers identified themselves as police, but said he did not initially believe them and feared they were "thugs" who would harm the boy.
"They didn't look, sound, or act like police officers," Couch said. Couch held the boy and struggled with the undercover officers before he was subdued. Couch's account is for the most part consistent with the narrative included in a police report obtained by NBCLA.
Couch was taken to the Manhattan Beach Police station for questioning. While there, police contacted the boy's parents, who told police of their son's condition and vouched for Couch's characterer. Police released Couch with a document that indicated his being taken into custody was "a detention only, not an arrest," because of "insufficient grounds for making a criminal complaint."
But a month later, when police notified media of the sting, the department published a sheet with the names and mugshots of 18 purported sex offenders. Couch’s photo was among them.
Those photos made news reports on several websites and television stations, including NBC4.
"It was horrifying to see your picture out there like that," Couch said. Seventeen months later, the website of another Los Angeles television station still had a link to the photopage without any deletions.
Eight months later, Manhattan Beach Police notified Couch he would be prosecuted for having allegedly resisted officers. That was dismissed in August without ever getting to trial.
"I've let them drag me through the mud for a year and a half," said Couch, now a student at Temple University. "At this point, I'm saying, 'it's not OK.'"
Couch has lost a year of schooling, he said, and fears that the arrest will hurt him when it comes time to apply for internships or employment opportunities.
His attorney contends one officer committed perjury in the affidavit for a warrant to search Couch's laptop. Nothing incriminating was found.
"This false arrest will haunt him for the remainder of his life," attorney Bruce Nickerson wrote in a letter to the Manhattan Beach City Council and Police Chief Eve Irvine. "The police department has it in their power to mitigate these damages."
The letter demanded the city petition the court to seal and destroy all records of his arrest. That would be a step toward obtaining a court finding that Couch was factually innocent, Nickerson explained.
Nickerson has prepared a federal civil rights lawsuit against Manhattan Beach, the police chief, and the officers who allegedly conducted the undercover operation.
"In my considered opinion, this case is worth seven figures," Nickerson wrote. If the city proceeds with the petition, he added, "My client would be willing to settle for less."
Police had set up the undercover operation as a way to suppress sexual encounters in the men's room that was getting attention on the internet, Det. John Nasori explained in the police report. He stated it was the extended period of time that Couch and the boy spent in the restroom that triggered his suspicion and led him to investigate. He also wrote that an utterance made by the boy indicated he was expecting a sexual encounter.
"This does not pass the smell test," said Nickerson.
The boy takes an "inordinate amount of time using a restroom" due to Prader-Will syndrome, according to a declaration signed by Dr. Ananta Malla, identified as the boy's pediatrician.
Nickerson has been discussing the case filing with Eugene Ramirez, the private attorney hired by Manhattan Beach to defend the city against Couch's lawsuit, both lawyers said.
Ramirez declined to discuss the demand for the city to petition the court to seal and destroy the records, saying Nickerson has not brought it up in their discussions. At this point, Ramirez is preparing to defend the city "vigorously," and doing so will require taking Couch's deposition, he said.
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