Wrongful imprisonment happens for any number of reasons, but the first thing law enforcement agencies can do to lower the likelihood of this happening is to make sure they’re arresting the right person.
The Clay County (FL) Sheriff’s Office issued a notice to appear to a man who was witnessed shoplifting $200 worth of cologne from a Sears store. The man identified himself as “Larry Towns Jr.,” stood 6’3″ and weighed 230 lbs. and had a large and distinctive lion tattoo on his right forearm. So, it makes perfect sense that the person they arrested after Towns failed to appear had nothing in common but the name.
The Sheriff’s Office then contacted a Jacksonville man named Larry Towns Jr. His lawyer says he’s legally blind, and he had lost his state ID. He reported it stolen to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, but the police never found anyone with the ID.
He is a 5-foot-9-inch, 160-pound, black man with no lion tattoo.
Towns is now suing the Clay County Sheriff’s Department for this mix-up, which resulted in some jail time for a crime he didn’t commit. His claim that his ID was stolen is backed up in the court filing, which includes a report made to another sheriff’s department in 2011. That report includes him informing the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Dept. that someone using his name and ID was cited for shoplifting earlier that year. He finally turned himself in to the Clay County Sheriff’s Dept. in 2013, presumably to clear the whole thing up. Obviously, that plan didn’t work.
Fortunately for the wrongly-arrested man, the State Attorney’s office dropped the charges, stating “it has reason to believe the wrong Defendant was notified to appear in court.”
One would be tempted to cut the deputies some slack if the description discrepancies between the suspect and the person they arrested weren’t so great. One is further inclined to rescind the slack-cutting offer when it becomes apparent this office does this sort of thing all too frequently.
Teenager Cody Lee Williams was arrested in August 2013 because he had the same first and last name as Cody Raymond Williams. The second man was suspected of having sex with a minor under the age of 12. In an interview with the newspaper in February last year, Beseler stressed how rarely his agency commits this type of mistake.
But a week before that interview, his office extradited and arrested Ashley Nicole Chiasson, a Louisiana mother who shared the same first and last name as a real suspect. The jail held the wrong woman for 28 days. Then after releasing her, the Sheriff’s Office arrested her again. Both times, the office meant to arrest a different suspect.
Small details matter, especially to those who have been wrongly accused, held and charged. Small details should matter more to the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, which is now being sued for its inability to recognize height/weight differences or distinctive permanent marks.
The State Attorney’s office notes that it has nothing to do with these “notices to appear.” Those are issued by officers directly to suspected criminals — officers who also fill out paperwork detailing suspects’ physical features. But the State Attorney seems to feel the real problem here isn’t sloppy police work, but rather the state’s public records laws.
“We have had people arrested using someone else’s identification like that,” [State Attorney Angela Corey] said. “It happens a lot where a brother, believe it or not, will use his brother’s ID, and then we do try to help that person get their record cleared. The citizens are helpless when that happens.”
There’s no going back, she said, after the Internet fills with mugshots or police departments’ postings of arrest warrants. This is why she thinks the state should modify its public records laws.
So, the solution to bad police work is to obscure the evidence? While it is unfortunate that innocent people’s information become inextricably tied to bogus charges and arrests, making these records less accessible by the public will only serve to further insulate police officers from the repercussions of their actions. The less the public knows about these bad arrests, the more frequently they will occur. The press also acts as a check against this sort of thing by reporting on false arrests. Removing its ability to do so does nothing more than reduce accountability.
It would also remove a certain amount of leverage in false arrest lawsuits — namely that the officers’ carelessness has caused injury to the falsely-arrested person’s well-being and livelihood. Burying this would turn many cases into a “no harm, no foul” situation where it’s just between the person who was wrongly arrested and the agency performing the arrest — and what’s a few days in jail worth anyway? Damages resulting from lawsuits like these are supposed to be a deterrent, and the number of deterrents to bad police behavior is low enough already.
Finally, a key part of the lawsuit is the evidence showing this Sheriff’s Dept. has wrongfully arrested other people. If public records were locked down, it would be much harder for plaintiffs to access information showing a pattern of misconduct or disregard for competent police work.
While it is unfortunate that easy access to public records has allowed mugshot sites and others to “smear” people who’ve been falsely arrested or have had charges dropped, the negatives of eliminating public access still outweighs the gains.