Cops hear it all the time: “I didn’t do it!” “You’ve got the wrong guy!” “It wasn’t me!” And yet, hundreds of times over the past five years, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has arrested the wrong people, with scores spending several days in jail, over identification errors.
A Los Angeles Times study found that more than 1,480 times over the past half-decade, the sheriff’s department wrongfully incarcerated people, with the reasons ranging from overlooking fingerprint records to working off of records that were incomplete.
Granted, Los Angeles County has a large population so it may seem like the number – about 1,500 people – is small in comparison. But the Times study found that the wrongful imprisonments were occurring so frequently, sometimes one person per day was being hauled in, though they were literally innocent of the charges.
Many of those who were falsely imprisoned had the same names as people who were legitimately wanted by authorities, or who had their identities stolen. Sometimes, it took several days for police to figure out they had the wrong person, the Times reported, noting during that time the falsely accused remained behind bars until cops sorted out the mistake.
How crazy did it get? “In one case, a mechanic held for nine days in 1989 on a warrant meant for someone else was detained again 20 years later on the same warrant. He was jailed for more than a month the second time before the error was discovered,” the paper reported.
In another case, a Nissan customer service representative was extradited from Tennessee to L.A. on a sex crimes case meant for someone else with a similar – yes, similar name.
In yet another case, a construction worker who was wrongly accused and incarcerated was assaulted by inmates while he was behind bars, and deputies did nothing.
“I’m with criminals, and I was a criminal to them,” Jose Ventura, 53, told the paper. Mind you, he had never before been arrested for anything.
The problems are manifest – and several-fold. Courts issue warrants for the wrong people. Police arrest the wrong people, based on incomplete or faulty information. The justice system incorrectly identifies people.
But if there’s any saving grace for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, it’s that they are not the only agency that is suffering from a breakdown in the processes to identify legitimate suspects. According to the Times investigation, cops all up and down the state of California are arresting the wrong people.
In the age of the computer and the age of advanced technology, how is this possible? That’s a good question.
According to the paper, criminals are assigned a unique nine-digit number that is matched to their fingerprints. But sometimes judges issue arrest warrants without including the identifiers – which, of course, negates the point of the identifiers in the first place and (you guessed it) increases the likelihood that the wrong people will be arrested.
“It’s bureaucratic sloth and indifference,” said attorney Donald W. Cook, who has represented more than a dozen clients mistakenly held on warrants issued for other people. “They don’t want to take the heat for letting someone go who a cop has decided, no matter how tentatively, is the subject of a warrant.”
And, of course, anyone who pleads with cops to let them go because they had the wrong person was summarily ignored – even though, at L.A. County, the department has a policy to launch an investigation when inmates claim mistaken identity during a booking.
It seems like a farce, wrapped in a comedy of errors, surrounded by an accident waiting to happen. And it’s not always the cops’ fault.
“People lie to us about who they are all the time,” sheriff’s Cmdr. David Fender said.
No doubt. But the courts – and “the system” – have the tools to identify the right suspects. It just sounds like the bureaucracy, as usual, is failing the system it was put in place to serve.