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Mistaken Identity Leads to Three Weeks in Jail, $3-Million Lawsuit : San Diego: Rene Antonio Villa Escalante was ordered freed twice, but each time erroneous warrants kept him behind bars.


SAN DIEGO — It began like most mornings for Rene Antonio Villa Escalante, as he nosed his 1980 Mazda up to the international border crossing at 6 a.m.

Because the Tijuana resident doesn't speak or understand English, a U.S. Customs agent ordered him to pull his car into the secondary inspection area, where it was searched.

Instead of being sent on his way after 10 minutes, the normal pattern, Villa was handcuffed and thrown in a cell, arrested on a warrant for possessing stolen property. Days dragged into weeks, although evidence collected within 36 hours clearly revealed authorities had the wrong guy.

Not Villa's cries of innocence, not fingerprint checks exonerating him, not judges' release orders--nothing could spring him.

On one level, Villa's story demonstrates how easily someone who lacks English skills, money and sophistication can be forgotten in an overburdened bureaucracy.

On another, it is the personal tale of how Villa lost those things he valued most--the opportunity to work hard, be trusted and provide for his family.

For Villa, a 34-year-old U.S. citizen with a clean record, the three-week ordeal has bred debt, shame and anxiety that persist today.

Villa's version of the incarceration in December, 1993, is outlined in a $3-million lawsuit recently filed against various San Diego County agencies. Much of his story is confirmed by the Citizen's Law Enforcement Review Board, an appointed panel that monitors the sheriff's and probation departments and recommends improvements.

Although wrongful arrests are not unusual in big cities, civil rights lawyers say they have seen few as egregious as Villa's.

"This takes the cake," said San Diego lawyer Michael Crowley.

Fingerprint tests clearing Villa sat idle in his booking file while two clerks, unaware that he had been mistakenly arrested once, apparently repeated the mistake a second and third time.

The review board's investigation found that county agencies failed to share information. The panel recommended overhauling the way fingerprint mismatches and potential wrongful arrests are handled in San Diego.

The county does not contest that Villa was jailed for 21 days but says so far it has not uncovered any evidence that the county erred.

"As far as we can tell, everything was done according to normal procedures," said deputy county counsel Morris Hill.

On Dec. 2, 1993, Villa was arrested on the warrant stemming from possession of stolen property. According to the lawsuit and the review board investigation, these events followed:

In the early 1980s, Villa lost his wallet, and along with it, various forms of identification. A man whose identity remains unclear gained access to Villa's ID and used it during run-ins with the law. That man, a person similar to Villa in height and weight but with a prominent cobra tattoo--Villa has no body art--was the person authorities were seeking at the border Dec. 2.

Instead, they got Villa.

In booking papers, Villa is listed as a "transient" and his emergency contact as "none." But he had a home, a steady income and live-in relatives.

At Villa's request, the evening after his arrest the sheriff's department confirmed that his fingerprints did not match the suspect's. The supervising clerk at the county jail placed a memo in Villa's booking file. But the clerk failed to notify the Public Defender's office, the court or the Probation Department, which had issued the warrant.

For the next 12 days, Villa remained imprisoned.

On Dec. 15, a deputy probation officer interviewed Villa in his cell, found no cobra tattoo and conducted another fingerprint check, which again showed a mismatch.

At a hearing the next day, the court called the probation officer to verify the new fingerprint evidence but was told he was unavailable. The probation officer's supervisor said he was not aware of any fingerprint test results.

Because of lack of corroboration, the San Diego County District Attorney's office asked to delay Villa's release until an evidence hearing could be held.

At the hearing four days later, the court promptly ordered Villa freed. But first he was handcuffed, chained around the waist and returned to a cell to await his release.

Villa's mother, brother and niece waited in the jail lobby for several hours. Perplexed and worried, they finally left after he failed to appear.

Under standard policy, each person released from jail is checked for outstanding warrants. A traffic warrant appeared for Villa that bore his name but was not intended for him.

Although the court order for Villa's release noted he had been arrested in error, a clerk re-booked him on a warrant with the same name and birth date that was on the original warrant, the warrant that put him in jail in the first place.

When Villa appeared in court the next day on the second warrant, a judge dismissed the charges, again ordering that Villa be freed. In a repeat of the previous day, Villa's mother, brother and niece waited, received no word and returned home.

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