Riverside Fire Department sued by man acquitted for arson

A Riverside man who was jailed for two years as a suspect in 40 arson fires has sued Riverside Fire Department officials and a dog handler who linked him to the crimes by using a controversial device intended to pick up human scent at crime scenes. Michael Espalin is now asking for damages in a federal lawsuit he filed in Santa Ana.

The only evidence brought against him at his criminal trial was a bloodhound named Dakota–whose handler said the dog found Espalin’s scent at the fires days and weeks after they were set in 2004. According to the lawsuit, there was no physical evidence or eyewitness linking Espalin to any of the fires.

According to the LA Times, Espalin is at least the sixth person in Southern California cleared since 1996 after being linked to a crime by the “scent transfer unit STU-100”– a machine that supposedly transfers human scent from an object at a crime scene to a 5- by 9-inch gauze pad. The pad is then put to a bloodhound’s nose, and the dog theoretically follows the scent to the suspect. The machine and the dogs used with it have led to false arrests in several high-profile cases including an Irvine man whose murder conviction was thrown out by a judge who said the machine was scientifically unreliable. In addition, a Long Beach man arrested as a serial rapist was cleared by DNA tests. And a Buena Park man sent to prison for a carjacking was freed when DNA from the crime scene was matched to a man already in custody for another carjacking.

Unable to post $500,000 bail, Espalin spent two years in county jail awaiting trial.

More than $2.3 million has been paid out in lawsuits stemming from some of the cases.

Comments about this post can be directed to Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney William Weinberg at 714.834.1400.