PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - Three men arrested on Los Angeles County warrants meant for other people deserve their day in court, their attorney told the 9th Circuit.
The federal appeals court met Wednesday to consider claims over the unique identifying numbers that various agencies from the California Department of Justice to the FBI make available to police and jailers. California's numbers are known as CII numbers, and Los Angeles County uses LA Main numbers.
Los Angeles attorney Donald Cook said his three clients were arrested because of the failure to train officers and jailers on using these numbers.
"Now, the sad irony in all of this is they use these information systems all the time, to catch people they want," Cook said in an interview. "But they won't use it to exonerate the innocent. That's the maddening thing here."
Cook's clients, Kelvin Gant, Reginald Smith and Jose Ventura, are the lead plaintiffs in a class action against Los Angeles and Chino, as well as LA and San Bernardino counties, and their respective police and sheriff departments.
Gant claimed he was arrested several times on a warrant meant for his fraternal twin brother. Smith alleged that in 2007 he found himself shipped off to the Los Angeles County jail after he was stopped by police in Antioch, Tenn., for a minor traffic violation and mistaken for a different Reggie Smith with an outstanding arrest warrant. Ventura was also arrested under a warrant for another person after a traffic stop, he claimed.
"As a result, persons who are not the subject of warrants are not only arrested on warrants meant for others, but can and are arrested again and again on the same warrants," a 2008 version of the complaint states. "Moreover, whenever someone is arrested on a warrant, the warrant is removed from the various data systems law enforcement uses to check for outstanding warrants. So if the wrong person is arrested on the warrant, the warrant's intended subject will no longer face arrest on the warrant. In other words, criminals get a free pass."
U.S. District Judge Gary Feess granted the defendants summary judgment in 2011, but attorney Cook urged the court Wednesday to reverse.
His brief argues that the warrants violated the particularity requirement on warrants under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The simple measure of including the CII number on arrest warrants would help officials ensure they did not arrest the wrong people, Cook said.
Judge Morgan Christen asked: "Is your particularity argument in Smith's case that there was a requirement that the CII information be added because it was readily available?"
"Yes, and I'd add a little bit more than that," Cook said. "Which is, it's costless to do so. Since 1988, there are no paperless arrest warrants in L.A. County. It's all electronic."
L.A. County's attorney Scott Caron has meanwhile argued that forcing authorities to include CII numbers would burden officials.
"The Fourth Amendment particularity clause does not require that a CII number or numeric identifier be included on a warrant," Caron said. "And all the warrants in this case included name, date of birth, address and a detailed physical description."
Though Judge Christen mentioned that Gant has allegedly been arrested on the same warrant five or six times, Caron noted that Gant is only pursuing claims over a single arrest in April 2008.
"But the reasonableness of detaining him is surely informed by the fact that this was the fifth or sixth time,"" Christen interjected.
"It might be if county of L.A. personnel knew that he had been arrested for the fifth or sixth time on that warrant," Caron said. "There's no allegation that L.A. personnel knew that information."
"Opposing counsel's point is that if that had been entered then county of L.A. would have known that," Christen said. "If there's readily available information, that can easily be entered to avoid this risk or reduce this risk, why shouldn't that be appropriate?"
Judge Sidney Thomas grilled Caron on why authorities should not investigate if there are "objectively reasonable" discrepancies, based on weight or height.
"It would be burdensome on law enforcement to sua sponte investigate the identity of every arrestee," Caron said. "Especially in the county of Los Angeles. We submitted evidence in this case that over a 13-year-period there were 2 million detainees in the L.A. County jail."
Thomas was not convinced.
"When you say that it's burdensome, I'm not sure that that's a constitutional defense," he said. "It's a practical defense and certainly an important practical consideration. But when you say it's too burdensome for us to research an identity - when it's obvious that you have different characteristics that the identity indicated on the warrant - that strikes me as quite troubling."
During rebuttal, Judge Milan Smith asked Cook if officials would have to conduct a "mini-investigation" on everyone they booked.
Cook urged the panel to consider how CII numbers could expedite the process.
"When it comes to relying on CII numbers versus name, birth date, et cetera, you go with the CII number," Cook said. "And if you see that they don't match? Boy, at that point you got to do something. And again, if you know the systems, the obvious thing to do is punch it in, and you know the result right then and there."
After the hearing, Cook said in an interview that L.A. Sheriffs had officially arrested more than 2,000 people on warrants meant for other people, and that the real number was probably higher.
"People outside of the police and the jails, particularly courts, judges, what not, don't understand the criminal information system," Cook said. "Like the CII number. They focus on names and birth dates when the police are far more interested in what CII numbers say because CII numbers are this biometric identifier matched to fingerprints. No two people have the same CII number, just as no two people have the same fingerprints. And that's something, that for understandable reasons, a lot of judges just don't understand."
Cook blamed the warrant issue on "bureaucratic indifference and sloth."
"Jails have to process a lot of people," Cook said in an interview. "They tend to rely very heavily on the outside agency. Everybody says they're innocent. And no one has told the prison people, the jailer, that you should look at this information."
James Thebeau argued for San Bernardino. Jules Zeman with Los Angeles firm Haight Brown & Bonesteel appeared for the city of Chino.
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