Lawsuit Claims Sheriff's Dept. Perfectly Fine With Arresting Person 70 Lbs. Lighter And Six Inches Shorter Than Suspect Sought

from the just-grab-the-next-person-you-see-and-we'll-fix-it-in-post dept

Wrongful imprisonment happens for any number of reasons, but the first thing law enforcement agencies can do to lower the likelihood of this happening is to make sure they’re arresting the right person.

The Clay County (FL) Sheriff’s Office issued a notice to appear to a man who was witnessed shoplifting $200 worth of cologne from a Sears store. The man identified himself as “Larry Towns Jr.,” stood 6’3″ and weighed 230 lbs. and had a large and distinctive lion tattoo on his right forearm. So, it makes perfect sense that the person they arrested after Towns failed to appear had nothing in common but the name.

The Sheriff’s Office then contacted a Jacksonville man named Larry Towns Jr. His lawyer says he’s legally blind, and he had lost his state ID. He reported it stolen to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, but the police never found anyone with the ID.

He is a 5-foot-9-inch, 160-pound, black man with no lion tattoo.

Towns is now suing the Clay County Sheriff’s Department for this mix-up, which resulted in some jail time for a crime he didn’t commit. His claim that his ID was stolen is backed up in the court filing, which includes a report made to another sheriff’s department in 2011. That report includes him informing the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Dept. that someone using his name and ID was cited for shoplifting earlier that year. He finally turned himself in to the Clay County Sheriff’s Dept. in 2013, presumably to clear the whole thing up. Obviously, that plan didn’t work.

Fortunately for the wrongly-arrested man, the State Attorney’s office dropped the charges, stating “it has reason to believe the wrong Defendant was notified to appear in court.”

One would be tempted to cut the deputies some slack if the description discrepancies between the suspect and the person they arrested weren’t so great. One is further inclined to rescind the slack-cutting offer when it becomes apparent this office does this sort of thing all too frequently.

Teenager Cody Lee Williams was arrested in August 2013 because he had the same first and last name as Cody Raymond Williams. The second man was suspected of having sex with a minor under the age of 12. In an interview with the newspaper in February last year, Beseler stressed how rarely his agency commits this type of mistake.

But a week before that interview, his office extradited and arrested Ashley Nicole Chiasson, a Louisiana mother who shared the same first and last name as a real suspect. The jail held the wrong woman for 28 days. Then after releasing her, the Sheriff’s Office arrested her again. Both times, the office meant to arrest a different suspect.

Small details matter, especially to those who have been wrongly accused, held and charged. Small details should matter more to the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, which is now being sued for its inability to recognize height/weight differences or distinctive permanent marks.

The State Attorney’s office notes that it has nothing to do with these “notices to appear.” Those are issued by officers directly to suspected criminals — officers who also fill out paperwork detailing suspects’ physical features. But the State Attorney seems to feel the real problem here isn’t sloppy police work, but rather the state’s public records laws.

“We have had people arrested using someone else’s identification like that,” [State Attorney Angela Corey] said. “It happens a lot where a brother, believe it or not, will use his brother’s ID, and then we do try to help that person get their record cleared. The citizens are helpless when that happens.”

There’s no going back, she said, after the Internet fills with mugshots or police departments’ postings of arrest warrants. This is why she thinks the state should modify its public records laws.

So, the solution to bad police work is to obscure the evidence? While it is unfortunate that innocent people’s information become inextricably tied to bogus charges and arrests, making these records less accessible by the public will only serve to further insulate police officers from the repercussions of their actions. The less the public knows about these bad arrests, the more frequently they will occur. The press also acts as a check against this sort of thing by reporting on false arrests. Removing its ability to do so does nothing more than reduce accountability.

It would also remove a certain amount of leverage in false arrest lawsuits — namely that the officers’ carelessness has caused injury to the falsely-arrested person’s well-being and livelihood. Burying this would turn many cases into a “no harm, no foul” situation where it’s just between the person who was wrongly arrested and the agency performing the arrest — and what’s a few days in jail worth anyway? Damages resulting from lawsuits like these are supposed to be a deterrent, and the number of deterrents to bad police behavior is low enough already.

Finally, a key part of the lawsuit is the evidence showing this Sheriff’s Dept. has wrongfully arrested other people. If public records were locked down, it would be much harder for plaintiffs to access information showing a pattern of misconduct or disregard for competent police work.

While it is unfortunate that easy access to public records has allowed mugshot sites and others to “smear” people who’ve been falsely arrested or have had charges dropped, the negatives of eliminating public access still outweighs the gains.




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Comments on “Lawsuit Claims Sheriff's Dept. Perfectly Fine With Arresting Person 70 Lbs. Lighter And Six Inches Shorter Than Suspect Sought”

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38 Comments
That One Guysays:

If they don’t fire the idiots- oh I’m sorry, ‘officers’ involved, which is likely, I imagine it would be somewhat funny if the judge ordered, publicly, that every single officer in the precinct has to go get their vision checked. Really just rub it in how abysmal their ability to tell people apart is, along with a well deserved dose of public humiliation.

Davidsays:

Re: Give them some leeway

The suspect had black skin, and so did the arrested person. Is that supposed to be a coincidence? This is the U.S.A. How many black persons are supposed to be on the street in plain view of the police?

This isn’t Kenya. You cannot really blame the officers for failing to look past the elephant in the room.

PaulTsays:

?We have had people arrested using someone else?s identification like that”

Arrested? Sure. Mistakes happen and while the police should be held to a uch higher standard, they’re also human. A couple of hours, the mistake is rectified, apologies and maybe some minor compensation and no problem.

Arrested, then sent to jail or treated a sex offender for days or weeks at a time where the most cursory examination of the person’s identity and history should have made it immediately clear that they have the wrong person? Not acceptable, even if it is a family member trying to pull a fast one on you.

“The citizens are helpless when that happens.”

Indeed. Which is why you should be stopping it from happening. The term “citizens”, by the way, includes the poor innocent soul you locked up.

“There?s no going back, she said, after the Internet fills with mugshots or police departments? postings of arrest warrants.”

Erm, there’s also no going back on the 28 days someone spent locked up for a crime someone else committed due to your officers’ incompetence. Many people would lose their jobs, some their homes depending on their personal situation and standing with their rent at the time, not to mention what state the children and family are left in during your absence. I somehow think most people would rather the risk of public humiliation if the public are also able to access proof of their innocence.

Agonistessays:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

My problem is with cops referring to non-cops as ‘citizens’. It implies they consider themselves either above or apart from the citizenry. Whether this is a symptom or cause of the paradigm they find themselves in, I can’t say. I’m just pointing out the error in case anyone thinks it is true as a matter of course.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

I tend to go along with the cop nomenclature, although not because they’re “above” the rest of us, but because I consider them to be a foreign occupying force.

Slightly less hyperbolically, citizens are subject to the law while LEOs enjoy qualified immunity. Legal exemptions, in my opinion, create what is technically a different class of person.

Anonymoussays:

Happened to me too...

Same first and last name with someone who was 30 kg fatter , has tattoos and really long hair. Didn’t expect to beeing pointed with gun at home after kindly informing cops calmly that my middle name is different. Carefully getting my ID from my pocket with two fingers and half of the patrol goes apeshit. Ended disarming him, another cop from second patrol and still calmly handcuffing and (disamrming) both of them. Both other cops act REALLY confused BTW…
Apparently You guys have it even worse =(

Anonymoussays:

So, the solution to bad police work is to obscure the evidence? While it is unfortunate that innocent people’s information become inextricably tied to bogus charges and arrests, making these records less accessible by the public will only serve to further insulate police officers from the repercussions of their actions. The less the public knows about these bad arrests, the more frequently they will occur.

In other words, you are claiming that in jurisdictions which still value the privacy of suspects, false arrests should occur sufficiently more frequent. Any evidence to back up this extraordinary claim?

It would also remove a certain amount of leverage in false arrest lawsuits — namely that the officers’ carelessness has caused injury to the falsely-arrested person’s well-being and livelihood. Burying this would turn many cases into a “no harm, no foul” situation

Uh yes, increse the damage done to a person on arrest so in event of a wrong arrest there is even more to sue for. Tell me Mr. Cushing, what was your complaint about militarized police again?

PaulTsays:

Re: Re:

“In other words, you are claiming that in jurisdictions which still value the privacy of suspects, false arrests should occur sufficiently more frequent. Any evidence to back up this extraordinary claim?”

I’ll guess he means that while the public are able to challenge and publicise these abuses, the departments involved are going to be forced to be much more careful. If nobody knows about the shoddy practices that lead to false arrests, and those falsely arrested find it more difficult to build a case to get compensated, that pressure is not there and the shoddy practices go unchecked.

“Uh yes, increse the damage done to a person on arrest so in event of a wrong arrest there is even more to sue for. Tell me Mr. Cushing, what was your complaint about militarized police again?”

Wow, I’d re-read the article if I were you. Tim points out that removing public access and scrutiny would reduce the ability for victims to get reparation to damage, and you’ve managed to twist that into a call for increased militarisation of the police?

Let me guess, Mr. AC doesn’t have a way to defend the police here and can’t bring himself to agree with Techdirt on something, so it’s time for distortion and deflection?

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Tim points out that removing public access and scrutiny would reduce the ability for victims to get reparation to damage

Because public access and scrutiny leads to increased damage for the wrongly arrested, and more damage leads to more painful suits against those responsible.
So obviously, more militarization must also be good, because an erroneous search warrant becomes far more expensive when it’s not just about invasion of privacy but a couple of dead people.

PaulTsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Because public access and scrutiny leads to increased damage for the wrongly arrested, and more damage leads to more painful suits against those responsible.”

Yes, that’s why Tim argues that the public should keep access to those records, whereas the state attorney quoted is arguing the opposite. You’re on his side so far.

“So obviously, more militarization must also be good, because an erroneous search warrant becomes far more expensive when it’s not just about invasion of privacy but a couple of dead people.”

How the hell did you make the leap in logic from the above to this? You’re really not making any sense whatsoever.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re: Re: Re: Re:

“So obviously, more militarization must also be good, because an erroneous search warrant becomes far more expensive when it’s not just about invasion of privacy but a couple of dead people.”

How the hell did you make the leap in logic from the above to this?

I think his argument is a reduction to the absurd. He took Tim’s position that showing greater harm leads to greater damages, and thus greater deterrent, and extrapolated it out to the idea that the solution must always be to maximize the damage of a mistake, and thereby maximize the damages and deterrent to the mistake. Tim also made the case that the police should refrain from making stupid mistakes, and that the damages+deterrent are supposed to be the motivation not to make stupid mistakes.

If you believe that the police become more careful when the stakes are higher, then ensuring the stakes are always as high as possible makes a perverse sort of sense. However, GP’s argument fails on several points. First, police are often not more careful simply because the stakes are higher for non-police. Second, police are often so insulated from accountability that more severe consequences to the non-police do not translate into more severe repercussions to police who make mistakes. Third, although repercussions to police should (in theory) be correlated to the harm done by the police, there is no reason that we need to increase the harm done by the police if the goal is to increase the repercussions for mistakes. It is simpler and safer for everyone to change the accountability laws to specify bigger repercussions for a given mistake than it is to enable the police to make a bigger mistake.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re: Re: Re: Re:

All right, in baby steps so Paul can follow:
1. TC argues that the damage caused by online pillories is actually good, because the extra damage done grants “a certain amount of leverage in false arrest lawsuits”, whereas when the only damage was wrongful deprivation of liberty, he feels those responsible could be let off too easy.
2. If police causing more damage is good, then obviously police militarization is the best thing to happen since tort law got invented. More damage done to more people, and concrete physical damage is far more effective on juries than abstract damage to a person’s reputation.
3. Yet despite the clear benefits police militarization and loose triggers would yield according TC’s metrics, he seems strangely opposed to the concept. Could it be that he did not entirely think this whole thing through?

PaulTsays:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

“TC argues that the damage caused by online pillories is actually good”

Where? I’m not seeing that at all.

I’m seeing an argument that despite the existence of such sites, they utilise the information that’s also vital for such a person to clear their name, and get compensation from the people who wronged them. Removing this information also removes that person’s ability to later get justice.

The argument is that although it might be nice if the websites mocking the victim were not around, removing the information such sites use also negatively impacts the victim’s ability to seek reparations for the horrific damage done to them by the incompetence of the police department. I’m sure most victims would prefer some online mocking they can counter with proof of their own compensation and vindication to the situation you’re defending, where they avoid some mockery but find it much harder to get justice for the damage done to them.

In other words, your initial assumption is mistaken, therefore any wild flight of fancy you go to based on that is going to be extremely misplaced.

“whereas when the only damage was wrongful deprivation of liberty, he feels those responsible could be let off too easy.”

Erm, yeah they clearly were. To the point where they can not only make the same mistakes repeatedly, but wrongfully arrest and jail the same people on multiple occasions.

Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymouslysays:

where they got the idea from

It is certainly a Morporkian attitude towards crime and punishment:

“If there was crime, there should be punishment. If the specific criminal should be involved in the punishment process then this was a happy accident, but if not then any criminal would do, and since everyone was undoubtedly guilty of something, the net result was that, in general terms, justice was done.?

from Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett.

Anonymoussays:

Reform of public record laws

If you want to mitigate the damage done by mugshot sites, there is an easy fix that does not require hiding who was arrested. Instead mandate that every mugshot released be blatantly watermarked with a type: WANTED [FOR ARREST] (used for an at-large individual who was previously arrested), ARRESTED, or CONVICTED. Mugshot sites can still collect and post those pictures, but bogus arrests might be a little less damaging if the mugshot at least reminds the viewer this is an arrest, not a conviction.

If you want to be fancy, require that the police affirmatively notify the mugshot sites about arrests that were later found to be in error. For agencies where the mugshots can be fetched anonymously, affirmative notification would be split in two parts: the opportunity (but not requirement) for a requester to register to be notified, and that the police post the correction in an area reasonably likely to be found by anonymous requesters browsing the listing. The mugshot site would not be required to do anything with the information, but hopefully a sense of justice would motivate them to amend their listing with a note that the arrest was bogus. If not justice, then they might be motivated by the opportunity to showcase just how many of the arrests in a jurisdiction are later found to be bogus.

Anonymoussays:

Sounds like the Clay County Sheriff’s Office is wholly incompetent and needs to be dismantled. These people actually plucked an inncoent person from her home SEVERAL STATES AWAY to lock her in their jail for a month. And they arrested her more than once. I mean, fuck. That actually makes this arrest seem reasonable. And it’s not. They all ought to be working in fast food, where their repeated fuck-ups will be limited to giving people the wrong condiments instead of depriving them of their freedom.

Udomsays:

Mugshots

It’s an odd argument to make that innocent people should suffer more to achieve the public policy goal of improving police behavior. Public shaming through a mugshot could easily be more damaging than the arrest and follow the individual throughout their life. The negative effects will only multiply as the use of face recognition software increases.

Chris Brandsays:

Easy enough to avoid

Along the same lines as “ban any encryption that the cops can’t break”, all we have to do is to not allow anyone to have the same name as anyone else. Remember that the most important thing is to make the cops’ job as easy as possible.
Hmmm. The transition may be a little painful – “ok, one of you has to change your name…”.

That One Guysays:

Re: Re: Who among us...

So are you saying if they were only paid more they would have acted less like brain-dead idiots and actually bothered to check the identity of someone before throwing them in a cell?

Basic common sense and a working brain is not an exotic feature that requires a lot of training, it’s something that should be the default, so no, this is not a ‘you get what you pay for’ situation.

BMalaisays:

The issue with this is because now this office has to be extra careful about who they take into custody they are afraid to move forward when there are real victims of real crimes out there. Is that fair to these victims? No! You can’t have it both ways….you accept that there will be the occasional case of mistaken identity and feel safe that crimes that are committed are being dealt with as they should be or you accept that crime is going to run rampant in our county because the police are scared to arrest the wrong person.

PaulTsays:

Re: Re:

Wow. In my line of work, I have to have a high level of attention to detail because of the value of the systems I’m working with. If I do something wrong and we lose even 5 minutes of income as a result, I’d expect to be disciplined, maybe fired.

Yet, if you’re a police officer, you think it’s “too hard” to make sure the person you’re locking up is actually the correct person? So, people need to give them a pass when grabbing innocent people from the street, lest they be too scared to do their jobs at all?

We don’t even need to get into the wider ramifications of the false arrest (for example, the real perpetrator is still at large and may commit further crimes while the innocent person is detained), you’re arguing that if people are punished for incompetence they might not bother to do their job at all. Wow.

“real victims of real crimes out there”

…such as the people who have been slandered, kidnapped and detained against their will, most likely losing jobs, or even family relationships over the events and the resulting loss of reputation and income. At least one of these incidents involved a whole month behind bars for the innocent party. Can you imagine the ramifications if the same thing happened to you? I dare say you’d think you were a victim of a major injustice.

Oh, sorry, the people who committed those crimes wore a uniform at the time, so you don’t count it as a crime even though it would be multiple felonies if an ordinary person did the same thing. Those victims don’t get your sympathy because it’s too hard to make sure the person you’re detaining is the right person.

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