Trips to Hell Courtesy of Mistaken Identification

Via the LATID errors put hundreds in County Jail

Hundreds of people have been wrongly imprisoned inside the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department jails in recent years, with some spending weeks behind bars before authorities realized those arrested were mistaken for wanted criminals, a Times investigation has found.

The wrongful incarcerations occurred more than 1,480 times in the last five years. They were the result of a variety of factors, including officials’ overlooking fingerprint evidence and working off incomplete records.

The errors are so common that in some years people were jailed because of mistaken identity an average of once a day.

Wrongful imprisonment is one of the most egregious errors that a government can make.  This is what true loss of liberty looks like.  There should be more serious consequences for false imprisonment.

h/t:  Radley Balko

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Peter says:

    Given that the US has the highest inmate rate of all democracies, I wouldn’t be surprised if we also had the highest rate of wrongful convictions and arrests.

    I can’t help myself from thinking that these things are linked. I.e. a judiciary and law enforcement apparatus overwhelmed by petty stuff that can’t handle the work load.

    As you mention, false imprisonment has hardly any consequences, and even wrongful convictions have only small consequences. And this isn’t going to change any time soon when you consider the lack of reaction of the American public on this subject. As if they all were convinced it can’t happen to them.

  2. legion says:

    So, if this is something they’ve been doing for years, known about for years, and done nothing to correct for years, why are there not massive repercussions going on against the county? I mean, the article notes:

    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.

    But at what point does this sort of repeated systemic incompetence remove the “reasonable belief” defense? At what point do the state or fed authorities come in & remove the county fromt he equation?

  3. @Peter: Indeed on all counts. I find this kind of thing extremely disquieting, but you the sad and frustrating fact is that most Americans are so afraid of crime (and irrationally so) that they are willing to put up with this kind of thing (because, as you note, they assume it can’t happen to them).

    It is the same kind of logic that fuels the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

  4. de stijl says:

    @Peter:

    Given that the US has the highest inmate rate of all democracies, I wouldn’t be surprised if we also had the highest rate of wrongful convictions and arrests.

    Another shining example of American Exceptionalism. And to think that Obama made the World Apology Tour – at least according to Romney, he did.

  5. @Peter:

    I can’t help myself from thinking that these things are linked. I.e. a judiciary and law enforcement apparatus overwhelmed by petty stuff that can’t handle the work load.

    I think you’re going far to easy on law enforcement and the justice system. The system rewards purely how many cases get closed and how quickly, which means anyone who is too careful about not falsely accusing or punishing the innocent will never advance and will in most cases end up washing out.

    Far too many cops, prosecuters, and judges simply want to grab the first person they can hang a crime on and shove them in a cage; they simply don’t care whether or not the person actually did it.

  6. @legion:

    why are there not massive repercussions going on against the county?

    Because many voters actually like the current situation. The justice system in this country isn’t really about finding out who commited some specific crime, it’s about making life hell for “the wrong people”. In many people’s minds, even if the accused are acquitted (and when they are acquitted, it’s never because they were actually innocent, it’s because they must have cheated the trial process somehow), they must have been guilty of something we just didn’t get them for yet, so they still deserved to be punished.

    As long as this sort of thing is restricted primarily to minorities and the poor, people will continue to support it.

  7. Tsar Nicholas says:

    The L.A. Times still is being published??

    Putting that aside, if you run a back-of-the-envelope calculation it appears as though L.A. County has over the past 5 years averaged 296 wrongful detentions per annum. L.A. County has a population of around 10 million. In 2010 there were over 130,000 adult arrests. On a percentage basis, then, we’re talking about less than one-quarter of one percentage point. When you factor in the obvious language and cultural issues that bedevil law enforcement in L.A. County I’d say they’re doing pretty darn well. Perhaps not by the twisted standards of the likes of the L.A. Times, or of course the left-wing academe, but within the standards of rational and sober America.

  8. @Tsar Nicholas:

    I rest my case.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Agreed, Steven.

    There should be more serious consequences for false imprisonment.

    One step in the right direction would be if the “serious consequences” fell on those who actually perpetrated the abuses rather than on the citizenry at large. Here in Chicago, for example, we have the police torture that persisted over a period of decades. By and large the penalties and court costs in the civil cases that have ensured aren’t being paid by the police officers and chiefs who perpetrated and concealed the abuses but by the people of the city of Chicago through their taxes.

  10. @Dave Schuler:

    One step in the right direction would be if the “serious consequences” fell on those who actually perpetrated the abuses rather than on the citizenry at large.

    Agreed.

  11. MstrB says:

    I had a friend picked up on a Friday Night on a outstanding warrant, sat in jail for the weekend waiting for a judge. Monday they figured out it was a paperwork error and he got a 3 day credit in the LA County Jail System.

  12. @Dave Schuler:

    Problem is that would require the courts to take away qualified immunity, which is unlikely for many reasons: given how many judges are former prosecuters, it’s unlikely they’re going to rule to increase their own liability; as a practical matter, no judge who wishes to remain a judge is going to want to work up a record of being “anti-cop”, and when it simply comes down to judicial philosophy, many of them simply don’t want to hold police accountable (c.f. Scalia’s laughable “new professionalism” dicta).

  13. @MstrB:

    You can get advance credits for jail now? How’s that work? Like if you’re wrongly held in jail for several years, you can go out an commit a couple robberies scott free?

  14. legion says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: The problem, which you so dearly try to sidestep, is not simply the raw number of mistakes – it’s the fact that these mistakes are repeated day after day, year after year, without even a lip-service attempt at preventing them. Also, the fact that so many of these mistakes are attributable directly to cops failing to follow what any PD in the industrialized world would consider Basic Police Procedures – identify the perp, and check the paperwork. These are day 1-class 1, rookie mistakes, but the county isn’t feeling enough heat to make them care about it. Mainly because, as others have noted, it’s mainly the “little people” (and I don’t mean Leprechauns) that are damaged by it.

  15. MstrB says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Beats me, he’s never taken the opportunity to cash them in.

  16. de stijl says:

    @MstrB:

    I would have asked to keep the snappy orange jumpsuit instead. You know, to impress the ladies.