The man who says his life was derailed after Honolulu police falsely pursued him as a drug dealer using an unreliable confidential informant has filed a lawsuit against the city of Honolulu, the former police chief, police officers and the informant this week over civil rights violations.

The lawsuit filed in federal court alleges that the parties entered into a “conspiracy to cause plaintiff’s unlawful arrest and wrongful prosecution for methamphetamine trafficking.”

The case stems from an Aug. 24, 2011 undercover drug purchase operation HPD conducted using a confidential informant its officers caught days before with meth in her possession. Sefo Fatai, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, was sent on an errand to a Pearl City Chuck E. Cheese by a boss to pick up some money she said she was owed.

Two days later, Fatai, an auto mechanic and day laborer, was arrested and charged with meth trafficking.

A Civil Beat investigation detailed the hours leading up to and following the Aug. 24 operation based on police reports, court records and interviews. It also chronicled the ensuing eight years Fatai spent fighting the charge against him as police and prosecutors pursued him over and over again based solely on the testimony of one woman, who had an incentive to provide the police with someone in exchange for her avoiding arrest.

No drugs or money were ever found on Fatai, records show.

Sefo Fatai lede photograph
Sefo Fatai says a woman he thought would give him money to pay off a debt to his boss handed him meth instead, plunging him into an eight-year ordeal fighting the criminal justice system. Illustration by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“It had a lot of impact on his financial situation, his relationships,” said attorney Jennifer Brown of Hawaii Civil Rights Project, a Honolulu-based nonprofit law clinic.

“Then he lost his actual freedom,” she added, referring to the nearly three years her client spent in jail awaiting trial.

Fatai ended up homeless and sold his tools to pay for the various legal costs, he said in interviews. His vehicle was seized by police and never returned after the case was dismissed, and his fiancée married another man while he was in jail when he couldn’t make bond.

Brown, his attorney, said Fatai is suing on grounds of unconstitutional asset forfeiture, falsifying evidence, and violating his due process rights.  They are also suing over the withholding of information that could have exonerated Fatai long before January 2018, when the case was eventually dismissed for good.

The City and County of Honolulu has not been served yet, said Andrew Pereira, a spokesman. It would not comment on pending litigation, he added.

The Honolulu Police Department also declined to comment on pending litigation. Deputy Chief John McCarthy previously said in an interview that he did not believe the officers violated Fatai’s civil rights in their investigation, nor did they falsify or omit information from their reports in the case.

In the lawsuit, Fatai alleged that Kristine Medford, the confidential informant, had sought to set up his boss, Tanya Waller, as the drug supplier and was only in communication with Waller. Honolulu police also failed to monitor or record any of that communication, the lawsuit said.

“Defendant officers had a pattern and practice of ignoring basic routine practices required for officers dealing with informants in undercover drug investigations,” the lawsuit also said.

Officers did not record the serial numbers of the buy money issued to the confidential informant, photocopy the bills, have a female officer search her, give her a recording device, nor verify that she was trustworthy, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit further alleged that Mark Ramos, the lead investigator in the case, perjured himself in court by falsely claiming to a judge that police had been working with Medford, the informant, for the past six months when he had just flagged her days before.

Ramos could not be reached for comment Thursday. He previously told Civil Beat he did not remember anything about the case.

Brown and Fatai also name Louis Kealoha, the former Honolulu Police Chief who was convicted of conspiracy and obstruction charges and pleaded guilty to bank fraud.

Aside from having been the police chief during the years Fatai’s case was playing out, Kealoha enabled a culture of undercover officers making up reports and providing them to prosecutors and grand juries, Brown said.

Kealoha and two of his intelligence unit officers were convicted of conspiring to frame his wife’s uncle for a federal crime, while two other officers pleaded guilty before trial.

Brown said Fatai is seeking an unspecified amount in damages.  More importantly, she hopes the suit will prompt changes within the Honolulu Police Department on how it works with confidential informants in undercover narcotics investigations, and for the court to look at the constitutionality of the state’s asset forfeiture program.

“How can we prevent something like this from happening again?” she said. “That’s part of why we’ve filed this lawsuit.”

Sefo Fatai works on a truck in Waianae. Sefo works in masonry although he is a trained mechanic.
Fatai says he plans on getting his auto mechanic license back. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Fatai said he wants the cops to be fully investigated.

“I want them to be held accountable for any wrongdoing on their side,” he said.

He said previously that he wanted more than anything to be believed. That is starting to happen.

“People felt sorry for me,” he said. “They didn’t have no idea, especially my family. They apologized. That meant a lot.”

Fatai said he now plans to take courses at a local community college so he can get his auto mechanic license renewed.

“One day at a time,” he said. “Small steps.”

Read the lawsuit here:

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