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L.A. County Warrant System Needs Fixing

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A federal judge is poised to address a longstanding problem in the Los Angeles County warrant system that incarcerates thousands of innocent people, and in one case allegedly gave a convicted felon a "free pass."

The Los Angeles Times reported in 2011 that hundreds of people had ended up in jail because of identification errors in the warrant system in five years.

"It's a horrible reality of what is basically the imperfect nature of the criminal justice system," former county Sheriff Leroy Baca told the Times in late 2011. "No one who is an innocent person should ever be tied in with the criminal justice system ... There's a difference between saying 'I plead not guilty.' It's another thing to say to anybody 'I'm not that person.'"

Baca said he would assemble a task force to investigate. But more than three years later, the county is no closer to fixing the system, and the task force findings were never made public.

That's according to attorney Donald Cook. He represents Reginald Smith, who in 2012 sued Baca and other officials after his wrongful arrest on a warrant for another man.

Cook also represented Santiago Ibarra Rivera in another case of mistaken identity . Rivera claimed he had been arrested twice because of ID error on a warrant: once in 1989 and again 20 years later.

On the second occasion, Rivera said, he spent a month in jail before officials realized their mistake.

Smith asked the court to force the county to fix the issue by including on warrants the unique identifying numbers that agencies, from the California Department of Justice to the FBI, make available to police and jailers.

For years now, Cook has asked the courts to fix the problem. But so far his efforts have been frustrated by the courts.

U.S. District Judge Gary Allen Feess ruled on Sept. 11, 2012 that Smith had failed to make clear that the warrants are invalid under the Fourth Amendment. The 9th Circuit threw out Rivera's case last year.

In an unpublished opinion in Smith's case, the 9th Circuit found that Baca is entitled to immunity, but did not rule on his constitutional claims.

Cook was back in Federal Court in downtown Los Angeles last week to argue the case for Smith.

Before he issued an order on Friday, Jan. 16, Judge Dean Pregerson said at the Jan. 12 hearing that something needs to be done.

"Now you have a situation where the law has evolved and says, 'You can make a reasonable mistake.' But I'm not sure you can make it twice. And I think that's an issue the courts haven't really addressed," Pregerson said.

Pregerson said he would not "presume to tell an executive branch agency how to fix" the problem. But he suggested that information should be included on warrants to make sure the same mistake is not repeated.

The county had hoped to bury the case once and for all with a motion to dismiss Smith's case.

But in his Jan. 16 ruling, Pregerson rejected only Smith's state law claim that he was coerced, intimidated or threatened.


Pregerson, a Bill Clinton appointee, ruled that Smith can amend his complaint to support his Fourth Amendment claim. He also found that Smith's 14th Amendment claim survived scrutiny.

"(W)hile a first arrest based on a reasonable mistake in identity may be excused, subsequent arrests - after the responsible agency has notice of the prior error - cannot be excused," Pregerson wrote in his 16-page ruling.

After all the roadblocks he's faced so far, Cook did not get carried away. When asked after the hearing if he believes the case would go to trial, the attorney replied matter of factly: "I don't know."

"The county has been successful in getting quite a few of these case dismissed before they went to trial," Cook said.

Cook said he never had a chance to dig deep before Feess dismissed the case during the pleadings stage. But he subpoenaed the California Department of Justice in December and discovered that there was a twist in the case's tail.

Cook said he uncovered old warrants that make clear that Smith was arrested on a warrant meant for a man likely named "Robert Lee Cooks," but who went under several aliases, including the name "Reggie Lamar Smith."

Cook told Courthouse News that sheriff's investigators had "Cooks" in custody in the early 1990s after the man was convicted, but officials never changed the warrant to show that Smith was not the man they were looking for.

Cooks was charged with sexual battery in 1990 and convicted, but failed to show up for sentencing in 1991. At that point a warrant was issued using Smith's identifiers, the attorney said.

As a result, the man law enforcement was looking for got a "free pass," Cook said.

The actual felon "gets busted on other charges, he gets busted in Georgia, he gets extradited to California and they run warrant checks," Cook said. "And they find other warrants but they don't find this one because, again, it's using my client's identifiers."

In 2007, 16 years after the warrant was issued, Smith was working as a Nissan representative when he was stopped by police in Antioch, Tenn., for a minor traffic violation. He was taken to a Tennessee jail where he was held on a California felony warrant.

He was transferred to Los Angeles County jail. Including his time in Tennessee, Smith spent five weeks in custody before the court ordered his release on Aug. 28, 2007. Attorney Cook said officials did not enter his exoneration information into the warrant system when he was released.

After Smith's arrest, county prosecutor Jennifer Martin went through county records and discovered that they had the wrong man, Cook said. He said that at that time Cooks was in state prison in Georgia, where had been detained on a federal drug charge.

But even though she had this information in her hands, Cook said, nothing was done to hold Cooks or to have the felony warrant amended to identify the real subject. As a result, Cooks was released from prison with no outstanding warrant to his name.

Martin "admitted L.A. County never trained her when she determined the whereabouts of an outstanding felony warrant subject, to inform the appropriate persons (e.g., the LASD fugitive warrant detail) where the subject was," Cook wrote in an email to Courthouse News.

Three years later, the warrant was updated with specific identifiers that included fingerprints, driver's licenses and aliases. But once again, the attorney said, the warrant used Smith's identifiers.

In 2011, Smith was stopped by the LAPD for a minor traffic infraction and the officers ran a check and discovered the outstanding warrant.

"It's not just name and birth date. FBI number matches, drivers' license number matches," Cook said. "There is nothing that's off. So, you can't blame those cops. That's all because a few months earlier the county had updated the warrant to include my client's identifiers."

A few months later, Smith applied for a passport but the State Department refused to give him one, citing the outstanding felony warrant.

Just days before the hearing, Cook said that he learned during a deposition that in November 2012 that county officials had realized their mistake and "purged" Smith's 2007 warrant and with it the record of the 2010 update.

That means that anyone looking at the county's warrant system would see no evidence of that 5-year old record, Cook said.

California state records, however, confirm that the warrant had been updated in 2010, the attorney added.

"In 2010, the county inputted my client's specific, unique identifiers into the warrant which made darn sure that the LAPD would arrest him, that the State Department wouldn't give him a passport. It won't catch the bad guy, but it will catch guys like my client. And that's absolutely crazy ... absurd," Cook said.

Cook told Courthouse News in the corridor of the Federal Courthouse on Spring Street that the Sheriff's Department has refused to give him a copy of the task force's report. But he says that as part of discovery he intends to compel the county to give him a copy.

He said he hopes to win an order that will make officials reprogram the system to include exoneration information.

"You can probably do it with some simple programming," Cook said.

It's possible, Cook said, that Smith got into the warrant system because of a 29-year-old misdemeanor for writing a bad check.

Smith now lives in L.A. and takes care of his elderly, ailing mother.

Cooks was convicted in 1997 on drug charge and sentenced to 21 years in Georgia federal prison, Cook said.

He was released from prison in 2013 after his sentence was reduced, according to the attorney.

Judge Pregerson gave Cook 20 days to file an amended complaint. On Tuesday the court set a 4-day jury trial for June. But the court also ordered the case into mediation. That means the case may be settled without a trial.

Neither the Sheriff's Department nor the county's attorney Scott Caron of Glendale firm Lawrence Beach Allen & Choi immediately responded to requests for comment.

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