Chau Van Sues Oakland for Libel, False Imprisonment

A San Leandro accountant who was mistakenly placed on Oakland’s most wanted list, then held in prison, has sued the city for damages.

Chau Van’s ordeal began in February of 2012 when he learned that he had landed on Oakland’s most wanted list for a shooting. As his name and face were being splashed around the local news media, Van, 37, hid out in his home for nearly a week.

When he finally went to the police department to straighten out the error, he was thrown in jail, not for an alleged shooting but for an assault with a baseball bat. To add insult to injury his arrest was blasted to the media by Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan.

“Today we have one less criminal on our streets,” said Jordan in a statement. “Today a victim is one step closer to justice.”

Van was released after 72 hours in jail. He was given neither an apology nor an explanation, merely a cursory statement informing him that the Oakland district attorney didn’t have enough evidence to charge him with a crime. But the city kept his name on the most wanted list for another six months despite Van’s repeated efforts to have it removed.

Only after Van retained attorney Dewitt Lacy to file an administrative claim with the city — a prerequisite for a lawsuit — did the city remove his name from the list.

Last week Lacy filed a federal suit on Van’s behalf seeking unspecified damages for false arrest and imprisonment, libel, infliction of emotional distress and violation of his civil rights.

“He is an upstanding member of the community and has always lived a respectable life,” Lacy told the media. He added that his client was the victim of “a careless and thoughtless mistake” that the city still refuses to admit.

Oakland officials have declined to comment on the case.

“We need to review the allegations and determine the facts before we respond,” said spokesman Alex Katz on behalf of City Attorney Barbara Parker.

Oakland appears to have gotten Van’s photo from a 2007 drunk-driving conviction prosecuted by Alameda County. That photo was apparently among those shown to a man who said he was hit on the head with a bat, then kicked and punched by a group of men. The man apparently picked out Van’s photo as the man who swung the bat. The crime remains unsolved.

Two months later a friend called Van to say that he was shown on local TV as one of Oakland’s most wanted criminals, said Van’s complaint. On the internet Van found various articles naming him. One asked the public to notify federal authorities if they spotted “the dangerous fugitive, Chau Van.”

Van contacted a lawyer and was advised to stay home while he called the police to learn that no warrant had been issued for his arrest. Reassured, he went to the police six days later “to resolve this devastating mistake” and was arrested, searched and jailed.

“One of Oakland’s four most wanted suspects has been taken off the streets,” said the next day’s news release by the Oakland Police Department. It identified him as Van Chau. But when Van was released two days later the department made no statement.

Van said he “lived in constant fear for his safety” for six months after his release because authorities had not retracted their false description of him as a violent felon, according to the federal complaint filed last week.