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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Court Throws Out Widow’s Case of Mistaken Identity

CHICAGO (CN) - A widow lost an appeal over a case of mistaken identity that landed her late husband in jail for 37 days.

In October 2003, Chicago police stopped a car in which William Atkins was a passenger. He was arrested when police found an outstanding warrant for parole violation in his name.

In addition to having the same name as the wanted man, Atkins was also the same race and sex, and he had been born on the same day in a different year. The first three digits of Atkins' social security number were also the same as that of the parole jumper.

After his release, Atkins sued several Chicago entities and officials, alleging multiple constitutional rights violations. When Atkins died, his widow took over the lawsuit.

A federal judge recently dismissed the lawsuit, and the 7th Circuit ruled to affirm on Tuesday, noting that the suit was futile since Atkins is dead and his widow can only offer hearsay.

Judge Richard Posner noted for the court's three-judge panel that Atkins' four complaints were put together by an attorney, rather than pro se, but they were each "riddled with contradictions."

"We are left in darkness as to whether the plaintiff is actually alleging that Atkins was denied food or water for four days, or for a lesser, but still constitutionally significant, length of time," Posner wrote. "The plaintiff's lawyer has had four bites at the apple. Enough is enough.

The court also upheld the original arrest. Though police lacked probable cause to stop the vehicle, police could have reasonably believed that Atkins was the man named in the warrant.

"Clearly if he was the William Atkins named in the warrant the illegality of the stop did not invalidate the arrest," Posner wrote. "A person named in a valid warrant has no right to be at large, and so suffers no infringement of his rights when he is apprehended."

Atkins received a preliminary hearing seven days after his arrest, but he failed to persuade the hearing officer that he had been misidentified. Though Atkins denied being the individual named in the warrant, he aroused the hearing officer's suspicions by arguing that he should be released because his parole had expired.

Whether Atkins had an expired parole status himself, or he was arguing alternative grounds for dismissal of the parole violation at hand, Posner found no fault in the hearing officer's handling of the case.

Atkins had also argued that he was entitled to a judicial, rather than administrative, determination of probable cause to hold him within two days of his arrest.

"Before a new constitutional right is declared, it would be prudent to inquire into the relative merits of judicial and administrative determination of identities of alleged parole violators," Posner wrote.

The ruling states that giving everyone arrested on parole violations judicial review would completely overrun the prison system, making it unfeasible.

Atkins' claims that he faced unconstitutional conditions of confinement were also dismissed due to factual inconsistencies between his four amended complaints and because Atkins, the only witness to the alleged violations, is dead.

In a concurring opinion, Judge David Hamilton wrote that Atkins should have been given a judicial hearing to prove that he was not the same Atkins sought on the parole warrant.

He also argued for more intensive screening to prevent such mishaps, cautioning that "a law-abiding person could be sent to prison without ever having a fact-finding hearing before a judge, let alone a jury trial."

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