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An issue faced by many jails is the arrestee who is brought into the jail pursuant to a warrant who protests that he is not the person named in the warrant.  An example case is Fairley v. Luman.i

On April 26, 1997, John Fairley (“John”) was taken into custody by Long Beach Officers Romero and Javellana for allegedly violating a temporary restraining order after a confrontation with his next door neighbor. John claimed the officers used excessive force when taking him into custody.

After John was in custody, Officers Romero and Javellana ran a warrant check and found two 1995 infraction warrants for Joe B. Fairley, John’s identical twin brother. The physical descriptions of the two men were similar in certain respects: both were black, between 5′ 6″ and 5′ 8″, and, of course, were the same age. However, their weights differed by approximately 66 pounds and the driver’s license number on one of the warrants was similar, but not identical, to the number on John’s license. John had not had contact with the police in almost ten years and both he and his wife told the officers the warrants had to be for Joe. The officers knew John had a twin: the temporary restraining order application said so and his next door neighbor pointed that fact out to the officers.

Officers Romero and Javellana told the booking sergeant, Ford, that John Fairley had a twin brother, as did John himself, insisting the warrants were for his twin. Nonetheless, Sergeant Ford approved John’s booking on the warrants based on the similarity in the physical descriptions alone. Neither a fingerprint comparison nor Department of Motor Vehicles check was completed at any time during John’s twelve-day detention. Either would have immediately alerted the City it had the wrong man.

John continuously protested the mistaken identity over the course of his twelve-day detention. Prison officials responded by reducing his privileges. Although the charge against John was dropped three days after his arrest, the police continued to hold him on Joe’s infraction warrants and later transferred him to the Los Angeles County jail. John was released only after filing a citizen’s complaint from jail. The ensuing internal affairs investigation found the City’s policies and procedures had been fully complied with in the handling of John’s case.

John filed this lawsuit against Officers Romero and Javellana, the booking officer, Sergeant Ford, and the City for violation of his constitutional rights.

The Ninth Circuit concluded: “John had a liberty interest in being free from a twelve-day incarceration without any procedural safeguard in place to verify the warrant he was detained on was his and in the face of his repeated protests of innocence.  In light of the importance of John’s liberty interest, the significant risk of deprivation of that interest through the City’s warrant procedures, and the minimum burden to the City of instituting readily available procedures for decreasing the risk of erroneous detention, the procedures afforded by the City to John failed to provide him due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.”  Thus, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has recognized that agencies must have a policy and procedure in place for the verification of identity.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit revisited this issue in Alvarado v. Brattonii where Alvarado, an arrestee brought a lawsuit based upon his mistaken identity arrest.  Alvarado was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department based upon a warrant, but protested that he was not the person named in the warrant.  He was taken to the Los Angeles County Jail and placed in lock-up  It was later determined that he was not the person named in the warrant.
At the outset it is important to note that Alvarado brought suit not just against the LAPD, but also against the jail.  One of the defenses brought forth by the jail was an argument that it was entitled to rely on the representations of the police who brought Alvarado to the jail.  The court rejected this defense.

The Ninth Circuit acknowledged the United States Supreme Court precedent on the issue of mistaken identity and found that Alvarado had stated a valid claim.

The court asserted:  “The district court erred in concluding that Alvarado’s claim that his due process rights were violated when he was wrongfully detained was foreclosed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Baker v. McCollaniii and Erdman v. Cochise Count.iv Baker established that when a person is arrested due to mistaken identity, ‘depending on what procedures the State affords defendants following arrest and prior to actual trial, . . . detention pursuant to a valid warrant but in the face of repeated protests of innocence’ may ‘after the lapse of a certain amount of time deprive the accused of liberty . . . without due process of law.’   The Court ultimately held that ‘a detention of three days over a New Year’s weekend does not and could not amount to such a deprivation.’  Erdman applied Baker in holding that a plaintiff’s wrongful detention of three days did not amount to a constitutional deprivation.

We have been reluctant, however, to read Baker as creating a bright-line rule regarding the length of detention. In Lee,we rejected the defendants’ argument that plaintiff’s claim must fail at the pleading stage because he was incarcerated for only one day before his extradition hearing.

Alvarado’s complaint alleges facts similar to those in Lee and Fairley v. Luman,   In both cases, we held that plaintiffs had adequately alleged constitutional violations when they were arrested and detained pursuant to facially valid warrants for other people, and the police failed to check their identities through fingerprint comparisons or other simple identification procedures that would have revealed the mistake.

Applying Lee and Fairley here, Alvarado’s complaint states an actionable due process violation.  Alvarado alleges that he was arrested due to mistaken identification and detained because Defendants failed to perform simple identification checks that would have immediately made clear that he was not the person wanted.  And just as in Fairley, Alvarado alleges that he repeatedly told the police that he was not the subject of the warrant. These allegations make his claim comparable to the successful claim in Fairley. Alvarado additionally alleges that Defendants have identification technology that makes misidentifications even easier to catch, but that they refuse to use it despite “routinely” arresting and detaining the wrong people because of the similarity of their names. These allegations suggest that the ‘risk of deprivation’ of liberty is even more pronounced, and the ‘burden to the [Defendants] of instituting readily available procedures for decreasing the risk of erroneous detention’ less onerous, than in Fairley.”


i Fairley v. Luman, 281 F.3d 913 (9th Cir. 2002).

ii Alvarado v. Bratton, 299 Fed. Appx. 740 (9th Cir. 2008)

iii Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137 (1979)

iv  Erdman v. Cochise County, 926 F.2d 877 (9th Cir. 1991).

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