Man Sues American Airlines, Saying He Spent 17 Days in Jail After False Accusation

An Arizona man was jailed for 17 days after American Airlines mistakenly identified him as a suspect who had broken into a duty-free shop at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and then boarded an American flight to Reno, Nev., he claims in a lawsuit .

The man, Michael Lowe, contends in the suit that he had lived in “a constant state of fear” while he was jailed at the Quay County detention center in rural New Mexico, where violent outbursts erupted over trivial disputes and he saw an inmate punch another, staining the wall with blood.

The lawsuit, which was filed on Monday in Tarrant County District Court in Fort Worth, Texas, and seeks unspecified monetary damages, involves “the arrest and imprisonment of an innocent man because of American Airline’s negligence,” the complaint states. In an email on Tuesday, an American Airlines spokesman wrote, “We’re reviewing the lawsuit.”

Mr. Lowe’s ordeal began, the lawsuit states, when a man burglarized a duty-free shop at the Dallas Fort Worth airport on May 12, 2020, and then boarded American Flight 2248 to Reno. Mr. Lowe, a Grand Canyon tour guide, boarded the same flight to visit a friend, the lawsuit states.

To identify the culprit, the airport police obtained a search warrant ordering American to produce “any and all recorded travel data for all individuals” on the flight, the lawsuit states. But according to the complaint, American gave the police information about a single passenger: Mr. Lowe.

“I’m baffled by how this happened,” Mr. Lowe’s lawyer, Scott H. Palmer, said in an interview Tuesday. “I don’t understand how they were able to pick the wrong person and only the wrong person when the true suspect was a passenger on that flight.”

A probable cause affidavit, based on airport surveillance photos, said the suspect had a “short military-style haircut, black polo shirt and blue jeans,” the lawsuit states. Mr. Lowe sent a selfie to his girlfriend from the plane that day showing his wavy silver hair, the lawsuit states.

Nevertheless, “based on American’s identification of Mr. Lowe, and only Mr. Lowe,” the airport police obtained two arrest warrants on June 30, 2020, charging him with felony burglary of a building and misdemeanor criminal mischief, the lawsuit states.

Credit…Michael Lowe

More than a year later, Mr. Lowe was at a party on July 4, 2021, in Tucumcari, NM, when the police started asking for identification in response to a disturbance, the lawsuit states. After checking Mr. Lowe’s ID, they discovered the outstanding warrants from Tarrant County and arrested him, the lawsuit states.

Mr. Lowe was profoundly confused, according to the lawsuit; he did not even know where Tarrant County was. He told his friends “not to worry, it would all get cleared up quickly,” the lawsuit states. “He was wrong.”

At the Quay County detention center in Tucumcari, Mr. Lowe insisted that the police had arrested the wrong person, but his protests “were not merely falling on deaf ears but appeared to be antagonizing the jailers,” the lawsuit states.

He was ordered to strip naked and was searched and then placed in the jail, the lawsuit states, describing it as noisy, crowded and unsanitary. He spent 17 nights alternating between sleeping on a concrete floor and a metal bunk, the lawsuit states.

Jail officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Mr. Lowe was taken before a magistrate on his eighth day in jail, the lawsuit states. He was shown a copy of his Tarrant County warrants, but without a lawyer to explain the process to him, he was “paralyzed by fear and indecision,” the lawsuit states. He ultimately waived extradition to Texas.

On his 17th day in jail, a guard told him he was being released, the lawsuit states. Mr. Lowe walked to a McDonald’s, took a bus home to Flagstaff and immediately began sobbing when he arrived home at 4 am, the lawsuit states.

Then he began investigating what had happened to him, calling Tarrant County officials, the lawsuit states. An airport police detective told him he was supposed to have been in court at 9 am and that because of his failure to appear, another warrant would be issued for him, the lawsuit states.

Responding to Mr. Lowe’s pleas, the detective eventually obtained Mr. Lowe’s booking photo from Quay County and compared it with the airport surveillance photos of the suspect, the lawsuit states.

“It was obvious that American Airlines had the wrong person, and that Mr. Lowe was not the person responsible for the burglary on May 12, 2020,” the lawsuit states.

The charges against Mr. Lowe were dropped in September, Mr. Palmer said. An airport spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokeswoman for the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office confirmed there were no pending cases against Mr. Lowe.

Mr. Palmer said that he held the airline — not the police — responsible for Mr. Lowe’s ordeal because, were it not for the misidentification by American, Mr. Lowe would never have been charged.

He also said that the police cannot be sued for violations of constitutional rights that were not the result of intentional acts and that the airport police did not appear to have intentionally targeted Mr. Lowe.

The airline “started the dominoes falling,” Mr. Palmer said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

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