09 January 2012

Denver Sheriff Routinely Misidentified And Wrongfully Jailed People

The Denver Post, recounting cases compiled by the Colorado ACLU in a federal class action lawsuit, makes clear that the City and County of Denver, about six times a month and probably considerably more often, arrested obviously wrong people on warrants and sometimes makes people serve sentences for the wrong person.

Most of the cases involve people with similar names to people subject to outstanding warrants and convictions, but very different dates of birth, genders, races, height, weight, mug shot appearances or finger prints, despite the fact that the identifying information was easily available to the Sheriff's department.

The problem was excerbated by unconstitutional long delays in bringing people who were arrested before a court where the confusion could be cleared up: "One Denver sheriff's official, in sworn testimony attached as an exhibit, said he had seen many of those arrested go a week without an initial court appearance "many, many, many times." The constitution generally requires an initial court appearance to take place within a couple of business days. It isn't clear if the widespread unconstitutional delay in scheduling first appearances of incarcerated individuals in Denver is ongoing.

Five hundred and three cases from 2002 to 2009 were documented by the ACLU, and some were repeated with the same person. Most cases produced releases of the suspect after a few days to a few weeks. A few produced plea bargains for minor punishments to crimes committed by a clearly different suspect. A few cases involved someone being forced to serve someone else's misdemeanor sentence for as much as nine months.

Every single one of these cases would have been easily preventable if the Sheriff's office routinely matched identifying information accompanying warrants against the person actually arrested. For example:

Brad Braxton was arrested on July 19, 2007, on a warrant for David Eddie, right. In Braxton's lawsuit, he says deputies at the jail made statements such as, "He doesn't look like a white guy to me." Braxton spent nine days in jail. . . .

A white man was hauled in even when the suspect actually was an American Indian who was nearly a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier. He wasn't released until almost a month had passed and not until the victim of the crime alerted authorities at a court hearing that they had the wrong suspect.

The notes from the judges include the following: "Wrong defendant brought into court. Jamie Milner is a female. The defendant Jamie Sandoval is male."

This is a situation which involves not only deprivations of civil liberties, but also shows incredibly shoddy law enforcement work in the simplest of cases, those where the criminal justice system already knows who the suspect is and has identifying information to confirm that they have the right person.

These cases also represent a class of cases where the prevailing legal standard for a damages remedy against the city, "deliberate indifference" is far too high, and a strict liability "takings clause" type remedy like the one that requires the state to compensate you for a deprivation of property in eminent domain proceedings without regard to intent, would be more effective and appropriate, since the cost and practical difficulties of proving deliberate indifference is so great, and the intent of the government is so unrelated to the nature of the harm suffered.

The City consented to reforms in 2008, but a lack of record keeping by the City makes it hard to determine how much progress has been made towards addressing this problem.

A better remedy, in terms of harm prevention, would be a technological and procedural one, in which every single warrant was accompanied by a mug shot and full description of the suspect and was checked in every case when someone is arrested and detained on a warrant.

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