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Man mistaken for felon can sue the state

The California high court rules for a legal resident who was jailed by L.A. County and threatened with deportation.

August 17, 2007|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- A man who was mistaken for a deported felon and held in a Los Angeles County jail for 25 days may sue the state for negligence, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday.

Rejecting lower court rulings, the state high court said Lenin Freud Perez-Torres, 35, may sue on the grounds that authorities knew or should have known they had the wrong man.

Perez-Torres was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in April 2000. Two months later, immigration agents and a parole agent burst into his home at 7 a.m. and threw him in jail for parole violation and possible deportation because a state database identified him as another man -- Lenin Salgado Torres, a parolee deported to Mexico two years earlier.

"He is sitting in jail and they are threatening him with deportation to Mexico," said Perez-Torres' lawyer, Robert Mann.

Perez-Torres is not Mexican. He is Guatemalan. He came to the U.S. in 1988 and was a legal resident and factory worker, his lawyer said. State prison records also revealed that Perez-Torres was 4 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than the man authorities thought they had captured.

When a state parole agent began doubting the man's identity, an immigration agent assured him that a photograph of Salgado Torres confirmed they had arrested the right man, the court said. Perez-Torres also saw that photograph. "That is not me," he protested.

It was not until Perez-Torres' wife retained a lawyer that the parole agent asked for a fingerprint comparison, the court said. The comparison revealed the mistake, and the state dropped its case against Perez-Torres. But the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to release him for five more days.

"If they cared one iota, they could have fingerprinted him and compared his fingerprints to the guy they thought he was when he was arrested," Mann said.

The state Department of Justice had earlier discovered that Perez-Torres, who had been arrested in 1995 but not charged, was misidentified in the database as Salgado Torres.

But it failed to correct the error before Perez-Torres' arrest in 2000.

"The only thing we found out for sure is that years before our client's arrest, the official record keepers of the criminal justice system figured out they had made a mistake and didn't bother to fix it," Mann said.

State officials argued they were immune from litigation because they were government officials doing their jobs. The California Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Joyce L. Kennard, said the state's decision to revoke parole was protected by an immunity statute, but not the state's "conduct in keeping plaintiff in jail after they knew or should have known that he was the wrong man."

Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul C. Epstein, who represented the government in the case, said he was disappointed by the ruling. "We are still reviewing it and haven't had a chance to completely analyze it at this point," Epstein said.

Perez-Torres also has a claim pending in federal court. Thursday's ruling was Perez-Torres vs. State of California, S137346.

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maura.dolan@latimes.com

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