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Jury rules woman falsely arrested by police, awards her $500K

Westmont, IL

Caption
A Westmont police officer was found liable last week in federal court with violating the constitutional rights of a former Westmont woman who was falsely arrested. Staff file photo by John Cox

A former Westmont woman was awarded more than $500,000 in damages by a federal jury last week after she claimed she was falsely arrested and harassed by the Westmont Police Department more than six years ago.

The jury ruled that a Westmont police officer violated the First Amendment rights of Dawn Zitzka, formerly of Westmont, who filed a federal lawsuit against the Village of Westmont and six of its police officers in February 2007 claiming she was falsely arrested and prosecuted four times by Westmont police in 2005.

The officers named in the suit are: James Schlicher, Michael Dale, David Newton, Gregory Compton, Terrance Boyner and John Bright, according to prosecutors.

The court ruled that only one of the six officers — Schlicher — was liable.

The case wrapped up Thursday in the Federal Court of the Northern District of Illinois after eight days.

The jury awarded Zitzka $530,000, and ruled that the officer must pay for Zitzka’s legal fees, which Kim Thompson, one of the prosecuting attorneys in the case, said could top $1 million.

It is unclear how the damages will be paid, as prosecutors would not comment on who may end up paying the costs.

Westmont Village Manager Ron Searl declined to comment on the case, and referred to a statement released by the Westmont Police Department on Nov. 21.

In the statement, police said the department was “gratified that the jury found allegations against five Westmont Police officers to be without merit,” the statement indicated. “However, we are very disappointed that the jury entered an award against one officer, but we respect their decision.”

The statement indicated the department will file post trial motions and will review the verdict for a possible appeal process. Because of this, officials will not comment any further on the case.

Prosecutors said the allegations in the federal case go back to 2004, when Zitzka spoke out against the Westmont Police Department for what she thought was an inadequate investigation of a young Westmont girl who was sexually assaulted.

In a news release issued by prosecuting attorneys last week when the verdict was reached, Zitzka claimed police did not do enough to investigate the case, leading her to place a sign in her car that read “Westmont P.D. Does Not Protect and Serve.” She also publicly criticized the department, writing letters to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, and spoke out at a Westmont Village Board meeting.

After that time, prosecutors claim that Zitzka was falsely arrested and prosecuted by the village four times in 2005 — for telephone harassment, trespassing and disorderly conduct. Her husband also was arrested while the couple lived along the 0-100 block of S. Adams Street.

All the cases against the Zitzkas ended up either being acquitted in DuPage County Court or were later dropped by the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s Office.

According to a police report from June 2005, Zitzka and her husband James were arrested on June 18, 2005. The two were arrested after police responded to a report that the couple’s home had been “egged” that day. Dawn Zitzka had a warrant for her arrest on a charge of criminal defacement and James Zitzka had a warrant for his arrest for two counts of battery, according to the police report.

Dawn Zitzka was also arrested June 15 of that year on a warrant for her arrest on a charge of disorderly conduct, according to police reports.

After the criminal cases against the Zitzkas were closed, Thompson said Dawn Zitzka filed a federal lawsuit against the department and six officers in February 2007, claiming the arrests had violated her First Amendment rights.

Thompson said evidence was presented during the federal trial this month that Zitzka was falsely harassed, arrested and prosecuted by police. Only one officer — Schlicher — was found liable, according to the jury. The jury found there was not enough evidence to find the other officers liable, Thompson said.

 Zitzka said after the verdict that she was glad the case was finally over.

“I am glad justice was served,” she stated in the news release. “I wish I never had to go through this. Through God’s strength I persevered.”

Attempts to reach Zitzka, who now lives out of state, were unsuccessful as of press time.

Thompson said the case was a result of bad leadership by Westmont Police.

“The citizens of Westmont were let down by their police department in this matter,” Thompson said. “The public now knows what Dawn has been saying for six years, but no one would believe her.”

The jury took less than a day to reach its verdict after hearing testimony from more than 20 witnesses during the eight-day trial, prosecutors said.

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