Civil Rights

Jailed based on mistaken identity, some who did nothing wrong are held days, weeks or months


At least 100 people have been wrongfully jailed in St. Louis over the past seven years, sometimes for lengthy periods, based on mistaken identities.

Yet, through the use of technology, such as fingerprinting, it should have been relatively easy to verify the claims of those wrongfully incarcerated that they were not the individuals being sought, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. By using mobile fingerprint devices, as some jurisdictions do, it might have been possible to avoid jailing the wrong individuals at all.

In one case, as a judge noted in a written order, it should have been especially easy to verify a claim that authorities had the wrong person—the William Lamont Willis who was sought has eight fingers and the William Earl Willis who was being held has ten fingers. However, William Earl Willis was arrested at least three times instead of the actual eight-fingered suspect, the newspaper recounts.

A lack of concern on the part of authorities to the havoc that can be wreaked on the life of an innocent person jailed for days, weeks or months, as well as an apparent willingness to blame the victims—often lower-income individuals and minorities—for false claims by relatives and friends who assume their identities is part of the reason why the problem continues, the Post-Dispatch says.

Officials say part of the problem is that individuals caught up in such errors often have criminal records themselves, making it easy to confuse them with other defendants and hard to sort out who is telling the truth. Clerical errors and communication among multiple jurisdictions also offers opportunities for erroneous arrests.

Once a mistake is made, it can be very difficult to get corrected. That means that some individuals have to worry that a simple traffic stop could mean a lengthy period of incarceration as the same mistaken identity claim is straightened out, once again, with the same lack of urgency as on prior occasions. One man who has endured wrongful arrests told the newspaper he hesitates to give his son the same name, for fear that he, too, will suffer the same problem when he grows up.

A class action is being pursued seeking damages for those who have been jailed despite not having done anything wrong.

As the Post-Dispatch article notes, a similar case is being pursued in Denver, where the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that more than 600 individuals have been jailed because of mistaken identity issues over a similar period of time.

Earlier this week, a suburban Chicago man who had recently been in the headlines after his sister helped him prove his innocence in a rape case for which he had served more than a decade made the news again. He was arrested at the home they share for failing to register as a sex offender—even though he had been exonerated and hence should not have been listed on the state police sex-offender registry, the Chicago Tribune reports.

Arresting officers in Berwyn refused to look at the paperwork his sister had for Carl Chatman, she said, but he was released within hours after his lawyer drove to the police station with proof that his conviction had been vacated. A clerical error was blamed for the mistaken arrest in his case; Berwyn police were reportedly conducting a routine compliance sweep based on the state police sex-offender registry.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “ACLU Says Hundreds Have Been Arrested and Jailed in Denver on Warrants for Other Suspects”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Reporters take on wrongful-arrest problem”

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