Box Elder County sheriff's office and jail in Brigham City

The Box Elder County Public Safety Center.

SALT LAKE CITY — Sheriff’s deputies acted in good faith when they arrested two African American men for bank robbery who turned out to be innocent, attorneys for two counties argue in court documents.

In response to a civil suit filed by the two men, lawyers representing Box Elder County in northern Utah and nearby Oneida County, Idaho, contend it was an unfortunate case of mistaken identity and that the officers, in addition, are protected by state governmental immunity laws.

Idaho State University football players Nehemiah McFarlin and Atoa Fox were driving through Box Elder County, headed home to California on Christmas break 2016, when Utah police arrested and jailed them on accusations of bank robbery.

The men, both 18, spent that night and most of the next day in the Box Elder County Jail in Brigham City until they were freed.

“Other than being ‘black,’ neither McFarlin nor Fox matched the description of the robbery participant,” attorneys for the two said in the U.S. District Court suit filed Dec. 5, 2018, alleging false arrest, illegal search and seizure and excessive force.

Three weeks later, a 20-year-old Ogden man, also an African American, was arrested by the FBI for a spree of bank robberies in Idaho and others states — including the Dec. 14, 2016, holdup of the U.S. Bank in Malad that police thought the two had robbed.

But in documents filed Jan. 11 by Box Elder and Monday by Oneida, attorneys urged the judge to throw out the suit.

Box Elder deputies involved “acted in good faith, without malice and without the intent to violate plaintiffs’ civil rights,” the county’s filing said.

Oneida deputies’ “actions and responses were lawful, measured and reasonable, and any injury alleged by plaintiffs, while unfortunate, was not intended, and certainly does not render the defendants’ conduct inappropriate or otherwise actionable,” the Idaho county’s document said.

Oneida’s personnel “acted in good faith (and) without malice, fraud or willful misconduct, and their acts were justified and reasonable under the circumstances,” the county said.

Because of that stated absence of ill intent, the law officers have absolute or at least qualified shielding from civil liability under the Utah Governmental Immunity Act and the Idaho Tort Claims Act, according to the counties.

No hearings have yet been scheduled in the case.

The two ISU students were in McFarlin’s 2017 Chevy Camaro, pulled off Interstate 15 near Portage to await AAA help. The car had slid off the icy road and had damage to the front end, the suit said.

The suit alleged that another driver called Box Elder sheriff’s dispatch to report a white car was off the road and two black males were in the car.

Two Utah Highway Patrol troopers arrived, and with guns drawn, ordered the two out of the car, handcuffed them and said they were under arrest for robbing the Malad bank earlier that day, the suit said.

The Oneida County Sheriff’s Office had broadcast that the suspect was described as a black male, driving a four-door white Toyota passenger car with no window tinting, three missing hubcaps, no license plate and front-end damage.

Fox and McFarlin offered alibi information demonstrating they could not have robbed the bank, the suit said.

The suit alleged the men were threatened and treated with excessive force during the handcuffing and their incarceration.

The Oneida sheriff’s office finally decided there was no probable cause to hold the men and asked Box Elder to release them, according to the suit, which seeks at least $10,000 in damages.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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