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ID errors put hundreds in County Jail

Wrongful incarcerations totaled 1,480 in the last five years, a Times inquiry finds.

December 25, 2011|Robert Faturechi and Jack Leonard

Ventura, the former construction worker, was pulled over on a traffic stop by Chino police and arrested on a warrant meant for someone else. Jailers stripped him and escorted him to a large shower area when he arrived at the L.A. County Jail.

Another inmate, he said, pushed him over so he could use Ventura's shower, leaving Ventura naked on the ground with back pain. Later, another inmate snatched his pair of jail-issued shoes and forced Ventura to apologize.

"Psychologically, I was already dead," he said.

Two days later, Ventura, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, arrived in court. He preached to other inmates in his holding cell as they waited for their hearings.

Once in court, Ventura, a native of El Salvador, watched as his lawyer told a judge that police had arrested the wrong man. The 1994 warrant was for a Mexican national accused of drug possession at a time when Ventura's passport showed he wasn't even in the country, the attorney said. A Los Angeles Police Department official brought the actual suspect's fingerprints to court and concluded that Ventura was the wrong person.

"Mr. Ventura, our apologies," a judge told him as he ordered Ventura released. "Good luck."

Once released, those arrested have little recourse. State and federal laws generally protect law enforcement agencies from lawsuits over such detentions as long as officers were acting on a valid warrant and had a reasonable belief that they were arresting the right person.

Sheriff's deputies pulled over Phillip Reed, a South L.A. youth sports coach, who was on his way home from the grocery store in 2009.

A warrant listed Reed's name, date of birth and driver's license number, but Reed knew he was the wrong man. His younger brother, Marcus, had used Phillip's identity in the past, Reed said in a deposition. Reed had previously obtained a court document showing that another warrant had wrongly named him before.

He said he presented the document to the deputies who pulled him over -- a claim that one of the arresting deputies later disputed. Authorities booked Reed even though the person listed on the warrant had a unique fingerprint number and Reed had no number.

That night, inside a county holding cell, Reed said, he begged deputies to look inside his wallet, where he kept the judge's form.

In the corner of his cell, Reed recalled in an interview, he began to weep and pray: "I know this is not me. I don't know what else to do. God help me."

It wasn't until the next day that authorities discovered the error and released Reed.

In some cases, warrants contain only names, dates of birth and basic physical descriptions that can apply to multiple people. Many times, officers will encounter people who match most if not all of those details.

In 1989, Santiago Ibarra Rivera spent a week in jail before officials figured out that he was not the man wanted on a warrant over a deadly drunk driving accident. Rivera had no criminal record but shared a similar name and the same birthday as the man for which the warrant was meant.

When he was freed, authorities gave Rivera a court document showing that he had been exonerated. Years later, he lost the record when his wallet was stolen.

The warrant became a distant memory until March 2009, when San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies stopped Rivera while he was riding in a co-worker's car that was missing a front license plate. Deputies ran his name and the warrant appeared.

Rivera pleaded that he wasn't the wanted man and that he'd been wrongly jailed for the warrant once before. He told one of the deputies that he had other court papers at his home to prove it. But the deputies, he said, refused to stop there. According to one of the arresting deputies, Rivera's knowledge of the warrant served only to make him appear guilty. Rivera said he complained first in San Bernardino County Jail and later in L.A. County Jail, where he was transferred, but was ignored in both lockups.

A review of Rivera's criminal history based on his fingerprints, readily available in law enforcement databases, would have showed that in 1989 he had been arrested and exonerated on a vehicular manslaughter case.

The old court file that contained the real suspect's fingerprints was in the court archives. Rivera languished behind bars as officials searched for them. He implored officials to find his records "as soon as possible because I have to return to my work."

When it was eventually confirmed that Rivera was the wrong person, Superior Court Judge Kathryn Solorzano apologized. "Mr. Rivera, I'm very sorry. I don't know how many days..."

"I think close to a month," Rivera's attorney interrupted, according to a transcript.

"That's terrible," the judge said.

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