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Closing arguments wrap in case of La Mesa officer accused of falsifying police report in arrest of Amaurie Johnson

Matthew Dages is accused of lying about the basis of his May 2020, arrest of Amaurie Johnson, a young Black man who was waiting for friends in La Mesa.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — Defense testimony resumed Wednesday in the trial of Matt Dages, a former La Mesa police officer who is accused of lying about the basis of his May 27, 2020, arrest of Amaurie Johnson, a young Black man who was waiting for friends outside an apartment complex near the Grossmont Transit Center.  

Johnson's arrest was captured on video and circulated over social media, sparking particular condemnation in the wake of the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which occurred two days earlier.

Dages, who is white, is charged with a felony count of filing a false police report and could face up to three years behind bars if convicted. The former officer took the stand in his defense Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Closing arguments wrapped Wednesday afternoon and the case went to the jury. Deliberations will begin Thursday.

Dages was taking part in a "fare compliance operation" with other officers at the nearby trolley station and alleged in his report that he initially contacted Johnson for smoking in public and failing to have a trolley fare while being in a "fare paid zone."

Dages alleged he told Johnson he wasn't allowed to smoke in the area, then asked if Johnson lived at the apartment complex nearby. Though Johnson initially said he did live there, he later admitted he was waiting for friends to pick him up.

RELATED: La Mesa officials release body cam footage of controversial arrest

Deputy District Attorney Judy Taschner told an El Cajon jury that Johnson was holding a cell phone and that no lighter, cigarettes or other smoking implements were found on his person following his arrest.

The prosecutor said the interaction between Johnson and the officer escalated into an argument when Dages would not let Johnson leave the scene after his friends arrived.

Videos of the incident show Dages pushing Johnson into a seated position, which Taschner said occurred multiple times. Dages alleged in his report that Johnson balled his fists, took a "bladed stance" and struck him on the arm.

RELATED: Man in video confrontation with La Mesa police officer speaks to News 8

According to Taschner, Dages "confronted, detained and arrested a young man who had done nothing wrong and then he lied about it in his police report."

Johnson was arrested on suspicion of assault on an officer, and resisting, delaying and obstructing an officer.

Deputy District Attorney Fiona Dunleavy alleged that due to "what was going on in the world, in our country" at the time, the police department was under a microscope, prompting Dages to falsify his report in order to justify the arrest.

He was released on a misdemeanor citation, but the police department later announced it would not be seeking charges against Johnson, who has filed a federal lawsuit against Dages and the city of La Mesa.

Dages, who had been employed by the department since 2018, was fired a few months later.

Defense attorney Joshua Visco argued the prosecution had not proven that Dages intentionally lied in any portion of the report, 

Visco said that whether or not Johnson was smoking, Dages reasonably believed he saw Johnson put something up to his mouth from his vantage point across the street.

Dages testified on Wednesday that though no smoking paraphernalia was found on Johnson, "I saw a (smoking) device in his hand."

Visco also said there was confusion even among officers regarding the exact boundaries of the fare paid zone, and contended Dages did not lie when he stated that he believed Johnson was within the zone without a fare.

According to testimony, Dages' superiors asked him to revise and edit his police report multiple times.

Dunleavy alleged that the scrutiny the department faced over the viral video led police brass to demand further revisions to justify Dages' use of force.

Visco argued the multiple revisions was further evidence that Dages' report was legitimate. He argued that the department heads were well aware of the video proliferated over social media and the potential fallout, yet saw nothing amiss regarding Dages' use of force, or his assessments of Johnson smoking and being in the fare paid zone.

Visco said, "But then after the decision burns them, now there's a problem with the report?"

WATCH RELATED: Jurors in Matthew Dages trial visit site of controversial arrest in La Mesa (Dec 3, 2021)