Good Enough for Government Work

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

First Los Angeles, now Denver.

More than 500 people were wrongly imprisoned in Denver’s jails over seven years, with some spending weeks incarcerated or pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit before authorities realized they nabbed the wrong person, a federal court filing shows.

Civil-rights lawyers suing the city and county of Denver assert the documented mistaken-identity arrests “are the tip of the iceberg” and are an undercount of the true magnitude of the problem.

In one case a black man spent nine days in jail after he was arrested on a warrant for a white man wanted on a sex-crimes arrest warrant.

In another, authorities arrested an 18- year-old when they were searching for a man 30 years older.

A white man was hauled in even when the suspect actually was an American Indian who was nearly a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier. He wasn’t released until almost a month had passed and not until the victim of the crime alerted authorities at a court hearing that they had the wrong suspect . . .

“Denver’s approach to this pervasive problem is to put its head in the sand,” the ACLU said in the motion asking the judge to rule on behalf of four individuals suing the city for wrongful arrests. Three others represented by the ACLU already have reached settlements with the city.

The ACLU, in the motion, cites a 2010 report by the city auditor’s office that blasted the city for having an inadequate system for tracking arrest identity issues.

“We cannot improve what we do not measure,” that city audit reported.

Despite the city’s lack of a comprehensive system to track mistaken- identity arrests, the ACLU identified 503 such cases from 2002 into 2009 by combing through orders issued by judges, internal affairs records, arrest warrant logs and jail records. The ACLU maintains that many more cases exist but the city’s lack of a robust tracking system makes it impossible to get an accurate count.

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19 Responses to “Good Enough for Government Work”

  1. #1 |  Homeboy | 

    Radley, you suggest that similar abuses have been documented in Los Angeles. Could you please post a link to information regarding similar findings in LA?

  2. #2 |  Radley Balko | 

    Here’s the link:

  3. #3 |  Monica | 

    In a sane country, these officials would be brought up on kidnapping charges, but we left sanity behind a LONG time ago. I weep for my children inheriting this.

  4. #4 |  Jason Vines | 

    The good news is, thanks to the recent NDAA, the government can now lock people away without any kind of judicial process that could help make sure the inmate is actually who the government says he is.

    If you think the government should be sure it’s imprisoned the right person, you’re living in a pre-9/11 world. 9/11 changed everything, and we can’t be soft on terror.

  5. #5 |  c andrew | 

    Well, if justice were a concern of the Denver politicals, then those making these mistakes would be incarcerated for similar lengths of time, lose their jobs, and have to pay restitution to the victims of their incompetence.

    I have a dream…

  6. #6 |  Steamed McQueen | 

    Arrest someone. ANYONE. Doesn’t matter if we have the wrong person, we need to keep those numbers up, dammit!

    This is the kind of crap that was a hallmark of Stalin’s Russia.

  7. #7 |  primus | 

    Which is why I stay out of your crazy country, though mine is headed that direction too. Unfortunately not only do we have a loon on our dollar coin, we have one at the helm of the country as well. Question is, where is freedom greater than our two countries?

  8. #8 |  Judas Peckerwood | 

    And 95% of America responds with a collective shrug and a “Hey, what can you do, right?”

    Imagine the universal outcry if one of the Mexican drug gangs or some other foreign group kidnapped 500 American citizens. But when it’s our own government, next to no reaction at all.

  9. #9 |  picachu | 

    Primus ” Question is, where is freedom greater than our two countries?”

    Not sure where you’re at but I’ve been in a few central and south Ameirican countries as well as most of Western Europe. Every country I’ve ever been in was noticably freer than the US.

  10. #10 |  Powersox | 

    Picachu #9,

    It’s obvious he’s in Canada. The dollar coin (L’une) has a picture of a loon on it. I don’t remember what’s on their two dollar (T’une) coin.


  11. #11 |  Bernard | 

    Where there’s a sloppy and unaccountable system there’s corruption.

    Who wants to bet against the likelihood that many of these arrests are deliberate to get back at people who the cops have petty grievances with?

  12. #12 |  John P. | 

    Seems like were seeing quite alot of “isolated incidents”, on all fronts of the war, our cops are currently waging against us, the public…

  13. #13 |  Bergman | 

    Re: Jason Vines, #4:

    Exactly. If you have the wrong guy locked up, that means the guy who actually is a threat to national security is free to do whatever he likes, because no one is looking for him.

    What always puzzles me, is how wanting to lock up the guy who actually did it (whatever “it” was) and make sure nobody gets falsely imprisoned is viewed almost universally as being “soft on crime”. How exactly is it tough on criminals to lock up innocent people while the criminals go free?

  14. #14 |  JOR | 

    #13, the reasoning is basically rule-utilitarian in nature. The idea is that if you have a general rule of locking suspicious people up and throwing away the key, you’ll catch more “bad” guys than if you “coddle” suspects on the chance that they might be innocent. After all if the real “bad” guy is still out there he’ll most likely eventually get caught.

    That’s their reasoning, anyway.

  15. #15 |  Balloon Maker | 

    They must have been guilty of something, right? The people arrested shouldn’t have been standing around looking so arrestable and none of this would have happened.

  16. #16 |  marco73 | 

    Something that I find disturbing, is that once someone gets their biometric information (fingerprints, digitized mug shots) into a computer system, that information should be readily available. At the point when someone is being booked, they could have them face a scanner for a couple seconds, and have their identity verified quickly.
    Even with identity theft and computer mixups, more than 24 hours is just obscene. Sure, career criminals provide aliases and lie constantly, but your fingerprints and face don’t change.
    Locking up people for days and days, when the real perp is on the street, hurts the innocent and is just a waste of resources.

  17. #17 |  Nancy Lebovitz | 

    It may be that the idea that guilty people are so qualitatively different from the innocent people that there’s no limit to how badly it’s legitimate to tread guilty people leads to arbitrary mistreatment of anyone who’s been accused.

  18. #18 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Us vs. Them. One day we’ll all understand we don’t need “them”.

  19. #19 |  varmintito | 

    c andrew @ 5 has the right idea. There should be an accounting of the aggregate time wrongfully incarcerated. Then it should be tripled because of the abuse of power. Then, find ANY person responsible. He must serve the entire nut, which is probably dozens of lifetimes, and pay the entire nut, which is probably tens of millions. The only way out is to sing, sing, sing. And if you get caught doing another false acc, you serve the entire nut anyway.

    The obvious problem is that the “they” we would ask to conduct this investigation and prosecute the ones responsible either are, or are loyal first, to the wrongdoers.

    It is only a badge of respect and authority as long as respect and authority are warranted.