Wrongly Jailed in SoCal, Class Claims

     RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) — A man jailed under $100,000 bond on a warrant for somebody else claims in a class action that he’s just one of 450 people San Bernardino County sheriff’s officers have wrongfully jailed in the past five years.
     Manuel Bravo Martinez sued the city of Colton and its police department, San Bernardino County and its sheriff’s department and Sheriff John McMahon in Federal Court. He was arrested and jailed on a warrant for a man with his name but a different birthday and with fingerprints, which were on filed.
     Bravo claims that the sheriff’s own records show that in the past five years “as many as 450 prisoners were, in fact, wrongly jailed on warrants meant for others,” and the sheriff and police allow it to keep happening because they refuse to use information systems readily available to them to verify people’s identities.
     “It’s a bigger problem than people realize,” his attorney Donald Cook told Courthouse News.
     “What’s going on is that the police refuse to use the information systems available to them to catch the bad guys or exonerate the innocent.”
     Once an officer makes a tentative identification on a suspect, no one wants to overturn that decision, which is how Bravo ended up in jail on someone else’s warrant, Cook said.
     Bravo says he had to borrow $100,000 to bond out after spending a night in jail because he was afraid he would be fired if he missed work.
     When he went to court nine days later, the judge saw immediately that Bravo’s birthday and the actual suspect’s birthday were different and released him.
     “It’s a fairly significant problem,” Cook said. “What’s so upsetting is that the police figured out how to do this decades ago.”
     Fingerprint matching is more common, cheaper, and more accurate than DNA: identical twins can have the same DNA but not the same fingerprint, Cook said.
     The fingerprints of the man on the warrant were in the law enforcement system because of prior arrests, according to the complaint.
     “It’s not like using a latent print. They have nice, clean sets of all 10 prints” and use sophisticated software to make a match, Cook said.
     “The problem is that the police don’t want to use these numbers to get people out of jail,” Cook said. Jailers too have the technology to see an arrestee is the wrong man, but are reluctant to take responsibility for letting people go, the attorney said.
     “The issue of arresting the wrong person never goes away,” he said. “The best time to address it is right off the bat. Instead, they kick the can down the road to let the judges figure it out.
     “It’s very frustrating. If it sounds outrageous, it’s because it is outrageous.”
     A Colton cop stopped Bravo for a traffic violation on Aug. 11, 2015, and arrested him on the warrant for another Manuel Martinez. (In Spanish, the first surname, the patronymic, is usually used as a person’s last name. The second surname, the metronymic, is used only in formal documents. It is unclear from Bravo’s lawsuit whether the other man’s Martinez name was his patronymic or metronymic.)
     Bravo and his wife insisted that he was not the man the officer was looking for, but he was taken to jail anyway.
     His protests of innocence also were ignored at his arraignment the next day. Since the court denied his request to be released on his own recognizance, he had to borrow $100,000 from family members to post bond so he would not lose his job, according to the complaint.
     Bravo claims the defendants have a long-standing practice of ignoring fingerprint numbers, birthdays and other discrepancies when they arrest people. Nor does he believe the sheriff’s excuse for it.
     After citing the sheriff’s records of 450 mistaken arrests, the complaint continues: “The County and SBCSD have claimed that more than 99 percent of these wrongly imprisoned persons never complained to LASD [sic] personnel they were being wrongly incarcerated on another person’s warrant. Plaintiff submits that because it is reasonable to assume that a person who sincerely believes he is being incarcerated on another person’s warrant is likely to make that complaint to his jailer, the County/SBCSD claim that more than 99 percent of the prisoners wrongly incarcerated never so complained is patently false.”
     The defendants did not respond to emailed requests for comment on Friday.
     Bravo seeks class certification and compensatory damages for false arrest, wrongful incarceration and false imprisonment.
     Cook’s office is in Los Angeles.

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