What began as a simple trip to drop off his roommate at the airport in the summer of 2016 ended in a nearly two-year legal nightmare for one Utah man — and now he’s suing the police officer who he says was the driving force behind it.
That August morning, Lopeti Misinale was flagged down by a police officer doing traffic enforcement, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court. The Unified police officer mistook his car for another that had made an illegal U-turn — and the officer yelled at him to pull over, striking his hand and arm against Misinale’s Audi A-4, breaking the passenger-side mirror.
After he stopped, Misinale was pulled from his car by Officer Kevin Spencer and placed in handcuffs.
Months later, the officer would push to have Misinale charged with a felony, claiming in court papers the Salt Lake County man had struck him with his car and refused to stop.
Prosecutors eventually dropped the charge, but months later, Misinale was charged again for the same incident — this time with misdemeanors in justice court. Those charges were also dismissed.
Now, Misinale is suing Spencer and the Unified Police Department, saying they violated his civil rights by falsely arresting him and maliciously prosecuting him.
“For me, I would like him to be disciplined, at least own up to his mistakes,” Misinale said at a Thursday news conference at his attorney’s office. “And for this not to happen to anybody else.”
Unified Sgt. Melody Gray declined to comment, saying the department had not yet seen the court filing. Gray would not say whether Spencer had been disciplined in connection to this incident.
Misinale said he believes Spencer sought the criminal charges because he had complained to the department after the questionable stop and sought to have the mirror on his vehicle paid for and replaced.
The man’s attorney, Robert Sykes, alleges in the lawsuit that his client’s encounter with the officer began on Aug. 25, when Spencer mistakenly thought Misinale had made an illegal U-turn near the intersection of 2200 West and 4700 South.
Misinale had actually made a right-hand turn, but had slowed down as the officer began flagging down cars, believing the car in front of him would pull over and he could continue on.
But Spencer walked into the road, then “reached out and slapped the windshield and passenger side mirror” of Misinale’s vehicle. He stopped.
“Officer Spencer then walked around to Lopeti’s driver’s side door, opened it, and yelled, ‘You hit me, get the f--- out of the car!” the lawsuit states.
Spencer pulled Misinale from the car, according to the suit, and handcuffed him.
“I kind of just sat there kind of shocked,” said Johnny Sengmanichanh, Misinale’s roommate. “It happened so fast, there was so many emotions of shock and anxiety.”
Misinale insisted to the officer he had done nothing wrong, and that he had made a right turn onto the road.
Spencer soon realized he had made a mistake, the lawsuit states.
“He then hurriedly removed the handcuffs from Lopeti, handed back their IDs and rudely ordered them to ‘Get the f--- out of here,” Sykes wrote in the lawsuit.
Misinale said the entire incident happened in less than 10 minutes.
“I’m not sure why he acted that way,” he said. “It was shocking when he pulled me out of the car, he yanked me out.”
Months later, Misinale said he was surprised to find out there was a warrant for his arrest. Spencer had brought the case to Salt Lake County prosecutors, who charged him in October 2016 with a third-degree felony for failure to respond to an officer’s signal to stop.
In charging documents, Spencer alleged that Misinale hit him with his vehicle and he had to jump out of the way to avoid the car. Sykes called this a “flat-out falsehood.”
Misinale had to hire a defense attorney to fight the charge, a court battle that took nearly a year before the judge dismissed the charge in June 2017.
That defense attorney, Wade Taylor, said Spencer’s police report was full of contradictions — including that it was a gray Ford Mustang that struck him, when Misinale was in a dark blue Audi.
“There was insufficient evidence to show that my client was guilty,” Taylor said. “Those are some pretty obvious details as a police officer that you should get right.”
Misinale said he was shocked again when, nine months later, he received notice that he was being charged with misdemeanors for his interaction with Spencer.
This time, the officer had taken the case to Taylorsville city prosecutors, who charged Misinale with interference with an arresting officer, reckless driving and negligent collision. A judge dismissed those charges in June.
“I’m wasting my time and money for false charges,” Misinale said Thursday. “Who has the time and money to do that for something I didn’t even do? I don’t. It’s not fair.”
Misinale is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, including reimbursement for loss of income, the money he spent on a criminal defense attorney and damages for pain and humiliation.
Sykes argues that Misinale’s civil rights were violated when Spencer gave “false and misleading” statements to prosecutors twice so charges would be filed against his client.
“That’s the kind of constitutional violation that cries out to be rectified,” he said. “It just cries out for justice and we’re hoping to give him justice here. We’re anxious to get this before a jury. I think a jury will be very angry at this conduct.”