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How a mix-up hurt business

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Jack Palmer was drinking with a friend after the 2012 Western Montana Fair when the two decided to drive to McDonald's, with Palmer in the passenger seat. The police were called. As the driver performed a field sobriety test, another officer asked Palmer for his driver's license. Soon after, he was thrown to the ground, cuffed and told there was a warrant for his arrest: bail jumping and drug dealing.

It was a mistake, the result of an incorrect birth date on a bench warrant for a different Jack Palmer. But officials wouldn't figure that out until later, after Palmer spent the night in jail, had his name posted to the county's online jail roster and appeared for court the next morning—despite his protests that they had the wrong guy.

This is the outline of Palmer's story, as told through court records and a 2013 Missoulian feature. City and county officials admitted the mix-up and took some steps to rectify it, even giving him a code name in case of future incidents, the newspaper reported.

Palmer and his attorney, however, don't think it's enough. Palmer runs a Missoula used car dealership, and having his name linked to drugs and absconding wasn't good for business. So they filed suit in federal court against the city and the county, alleging a smattering of constitutional and civil claims.

Their ask? $2 million.

Palmer's attorney, Terry Wallace, says the claims stem not just from his client's false imprisonment, but from the way officers and detention center staff treated him and the resulting impact on his company's car sales.

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Wallace says the officers "knocked [Palmer] around," then seized the $6,000 he was carrying from a recent sale, believing it was drug money. When Palmer was released, some of the money wasn't there—nor any of the inventory records showing how much officers seized. The sheriff's office removed Palmer from the online roster, but Wallace says it remained visible through search engines until August 2014.

"We were unhappy about the thing on the Internet, so we're asking for quite a bit of money," Wallace says.

City officials declined comment, but in court documents they argued officers acted appropriately given that the warrant appeared valid. Missoula County, in its court filings, added that Palmer's injuries and damages were not as high as the amount claimed. The city, too, said Palmer's distress "wasn't serious or severe."

Wallace disagrees, noting that sales at Car Werks dropped around $300,000 in the year following Palmer's wrongful arrest, though it's unclear how directly the two incidents were connected.

In January, U.S. District Judge Dana Christiansen dismissed the federal claims through summary judgment, stating local governments couldn't be held liable for constitutional violations of individual employees unless Palmer could establish the practice as an informal custom or policy, which his complaint did not.

Palmer is appealing the ruling and, in the meantime, has filed a separate suit for claims with state jurisdiction in Missoula County District Court.

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