GOLETA, Calif. — Serena Sutherland was hanging laundry in the back yard of her modest home half a mile from the ocean when Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies pounded on her door, waving a search warrant.
A clerk at a nearby liquor store had identified Sutherland, a frequent customer, as the woman who robbed him at gunpoint on New Year's Eve in 1993. In her den, deputies found a gun--a legally registered pistol--similar to the holdup weapon.
Sutherland, a soft-spoken, 51-year-old mental health therapist, protested her innocence, but was so shaken that she could not recall where she had been that night two months earlier. Handcuffed and driven to the sheriff's station, she voluntarily took a lie detector test--and flunked. When the liquor store clerk identified her in a lineup, investigators were convinced they had their woman and booked her for armed robbery.
It was a textbook case of detective work. There was just one problem: Serena Sutherland didn't do it.
For Sutherland, it was the start of an 18-month ordeal as she struggled to prove she was a victim of mistaken identity, then won from authorities an extraordinary public apology.
"The worst of the nightmare was they led me to believe they might come back and get me again," said Sutherland, the divorced mother of a grown son.
At first, fellow therapists reacted to news of her arrest by shunning her. Friends doubted her. Threatened with the possibility of a 10-year prison sentence, her health deteriorated and she took refuge in her work, counseling emotionally disturbed children and autistic adults.
"Some of my colleagues who refer clients to me were enraged this was in my life," she recalled. "All of a sudden, people say unthinkable things."
Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges against her. But that wasn't enough for Sutherland. She petitioned a judge and won a rare court order declaring her officially "innocent." And she sued for wrongful arrest, winning a settlement of $12,000 from the county and, this month, $15,000 from the liquor store.
The case became such an embarrassment that Santa Barbara County Sheriff Jim Thomas issued an unprecedented public apology this year. "I apologized to her for being the victim of that tragic set of circumstances," Thomas explained. "I felt that under the circumstances, reimbursing her for her actual expenses was the right thing to do."
But Sutherland remains bitter about the way she was treated.
Even while she believed she was still a suspect, detectives found the real culprit but never told her. It was not until earlier this year that Sutherland learned from a local newspaper that a woman arrested while climbing through the back window of a Santa Barbara pharmacy had confessed to the liquor store holdup.
A Common Experience
Today, more than a year after charges were dropped, Sutherland still has difficulty discussing her experience. "I still have a lot of anxiety," she said in a recent interview on a Santa Barbara bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. "My safety, my feeling of being secure in the world, was totally taken from me."
One of the most striking aspects of Sutherland's case was that it happened to a middle-aged professional woman who was willing to spend the time and money to restore her reputation.
Legal experts say members of low-income, minority communities frequently are arrested for crimes they did not commit, but seldom, if ever, do they receive an apology--much less restitution.
"Arrests like this happen every day in South-Central Los Angeles," said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "If false arrests were a disease that plagued white middle-class people, we would have compensation for it. Since it mainly affects poor people of color, it's not viewed as that big a problem by society."
No agency collects statistics on how many invalid arrests occur in California each year. But state Justice Department figures show that in 1992--the most recent year for which data are available--15.6% of those arrested saw their cases dropped before they reached prosecution. Another 10.9% cases were dismissed by a judge. Law enforcement officials say many of these people might well have been guilty, but authorities could not produce enough evidence to prove it.
Police must have "probable cause" to make an arrest but, legal scholars note, that standard is loose enough to give officers considerable discretion.
"Often, descriptions are inexact and police look for suspects with a vague enough description that it could match many, many people," said USC law professor Martin Levine. "Members of minority groups complain they are often stopped with descriptions so vague that any African American or Latino would match."