A Loudoun county teacher who was fired from her job and lost her home after she was accused of sexual abuse has won a $5 million verdict against the sheriff's deputy who investigated her.
Kimberly Winters was accused in 2018 of having sex with one of her underage students. The allegations against her were made in October 2018 about conduct claimed to have occurred the previous year with a student at Park View High School. The charge was dropped in early 2019.
Deputy 'Maliciously Charged' Winters with Evidence That Did Not Exist
Winters said at her trial that the allegations destroyed her life. She lost her job and her career. It took her years to find a new employment, at much less than the $75,000 she previously earned as a teacher. She spent thousands of dollars on therapy, and had to sell her home and move out of the county due to her highly publicized arrest
The civil suit was filed against the arresting officer, Detective Peter Roque. Over the course of a five-day trial, Winters' attorney Thomas Plofchan argued that Roque failed to adequately investigate the allegations made by the student and his mother before filing the charge.
Specifically, they claimed to have phone records and texts that would provide proof of an improper relationship starting when the student was 17 years old. However, that evidence did not exist, and the mother later admitted to "bluffing" about having it.
That claim about having evidence documenting the relationship formed the basis of Roque's arrest warrant presented to a magistrate, although the detective had not seen it.
Roque Did Not Conduct a Thorough Investigation
Plofchan said Roque failed to conduct a thorough investigation before bringing the charge, including that he did not subpoena phone records of any of the parties involved, did not interview Winters' neighbors, family members or coworkers, and did not conduct searches of Winters' home or classroom, among other possible investigative actions.
Even Roque's lawyer, Alexander Francuzenko, admitted the 18-year-old student whose allegations the detective used was a "confused and conflicted" young man. Plofchan said the deeply troubled teen and his mom presented an "unbelievable, unsubstantiated, and inconsistent story." But the detective never checked it out.
To win a civil judgment for malicious prosecution, the six-member jury had to find that Roque lacked probable cause to file the criminal charge, and that he acted with malice—defined in the case as acting in bad faith or with disregard for others.
Plofchan termed Roque's actions as "malice by indifference" by failing to assemble evidence before seeking an arrest warrant. "He acted recklessly in this case. He knows it and you know it," Plofchan told the jury during his closing argument. "He did it and she's the one who paid the price."
The jury awarded $4.65 million in compensatory damages for economic losses suffered by Winters. The jury also awarded $350,000 in punitive damages against Roque, the maximum permitted in Virginia.
"The jury's verdict vindicates Kim Winters, a wrongfully accused teacher," Plofchan said in a statement after the trial. "More importantly, it validates the citizens' willingness to hold law enforcement accountable. Law enforcement yields great power. They also have great responsibility. Reckless charges can ruin reputations and destroy lives. This is a step in giving Kim Winters her life back."