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Arrest Reasonable Despite Mistaken Identity

By Brian S. Batterton

Rodriguez v. Farrell, 280 F. 3d 1341 (11th Cir. 2002) Chapman v. City of Atlanta, No. 05-15505, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 20767 (August 14, 2006)

On January 20, 2002 the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that, when the police have a valid warrant to arrest someone, but mistakenly arrest someone else due to a misidentification, there is no constitutional violation, as long as the mistake was reasonable. This holding stems from an incident that took place in Florida on September 8, 1995. On that date, at 12:10 a.m., police officers in Florida conducted a traffic stop on a car that was driven by Patricia Foulkes. Joe John Rodriguez, the plaintiff, was the sole passenger in the car. After speaking with the driver, one officer discovered methamphetamine in her purse. She was arrested.

At this time, the other officer, a Sergeant, then began questioning Rodriguez and asked him if he had any identification. Rodriguez told the Sergeant that he had ID in his duffle bag in the car, and he gave him consent to retrieve it. The duffle bag contained Rodriguez’s Florida driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate, military discharge paperwork, a credit card, VA medical paperwork, and a patient ID card. The Sergeant retrieved the Florida driver’s license and conducted an NCIC check for warrants. The dispatcher first advised the Sergeant that there were “no wants or warrants” but shortly thereafter radioed that there were three warrants for “Victor Heredia.” The warrants listed an alias of “Joe Rodriguez” and were for the charges of possession of cocaine, unlawful use of a driver’s license, and driving with a suspended license.

The court listed the following data for comparison between the wanted suspect, Heredia, and the plaintiff, Rodriguez:

Victor Manuel Heredia a/k/a Joe Rodriguez Male White DOB: 6/xx/xx; 7/xx/xx; 6/xx/xx (multiple) {dates removed for publishing} Place/Birth: New York SSN: 1XX-XX-XXX8; 1XX-XX-XXX8; 1XX-XX-XXX9 (multiple) {numbers removed for publishing} Tattoos: 4 tattoos: right forearm, left arm, right arm, back Height: 5’6" Weight: 139 lbs. Hair: Brown Eyes: Green Scars: forehead Residence: St. Augustine, Florida

Joe John Rodriguez Male White DOB: 3/xx/xx {dates removed for publishing} Place/Birth: New York SSN: 1XX-XX-XXX8 {numbers removed for publishing} Tattoos: 6 tattoos: both biceps, both shoulder blades; both ankles (none on right forearm) Height: 5’11" Weight: 180 lbs. Hair: Brown Eyes: Brown Scars: No Scar Residence: Apopka, Florida

At this point the Sergeant approached Rodriguez and questioned him about his height. Rodriguez responded that he was “5’11” and the Sergeant disagreed, believing he was shorter. The height of the wanted person, Heredia, was listed a 5’6”. The Sergeant also noted that Rodriguez had at least four tattoos, two of which were in the locations listed in the warrant. Based on this information, the Sergeant arrested Rodriguez on the Heredia warrant. Rodriguez was transported to the jail, where fingerprinting revealed that he was not, in fact, Heredia. He was released within minutes of this determination. He then filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for a violation of his 4th Amendment right to be free from a warrantless arrest made without probable cause.

The Court noted that there were no similar cases in the 11th Circuit to offer guidance or precedent. The Court did state that a warrantless arrest without probable cause would form the basis for a 4th Amendment violation under 42 U.S.C. §1983. However, they then, quoted from Hill v. California, and stated “when the police have probable cause to arrest one party, and when they reasonably mistake a second party for the first party, then the arrest of the second party is a valid arrest.” In surveying case law from other Circuits, the Court found a case from the 7th Circuit in which they applied this same “reasonable mistake” standard to situations where police have a valid warrant but, because of a reasonable mistake, arrest the wrong person under the warrant due to a misidentification. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has also stated that “a policeman’s mistaken belief of fact can properly contribute to a probable cause determination and can count just as much as correct belief as long as the mistaken belief was reasonable in light of all the circumstances.” Note that this is for the purpose of determining whether there is §1983 liability and is not applicable to suppression of evidence in a criminal case.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals then sought to determine if the arrest was based upon a “reasonable mistake” in the Rodriguez case. The Court focused on the following relevant similarities between Heredia and Rodriguez:

• They were the same age, sex, and race;

• Joe Rodriguez was an alias listed on the warrant for Heredia;

• Heredia had used multiple social security numbers that were similar to Rodriguez’s;

• They had addresses from neighboring towns;

• The were born in the same state; and

• Rodriguez did not have fewer tattoos than Heredia, many of which were in the same locations.

An additional factor the court considered was the fact that Heredia was wanted for possession of illegal drugs and Rodriguez was encountered in a vehicle whose driver possessed illegal drugs.

Based upon the above similarities and the totality of the circumstances, the Court held that the officers in this case made a reasonable mistake when they arrested Rodriguez and thus committed no constitutional violation. The Court went on to state that “there are limits on how much independent investigation an officer must make before executing an arrest warrant, even when the arrested person is asserting a claim of mistaken identity.” Thus, the Court held that the discrepancy of five inches in the height of Rodriguez and Heredia would not demand that the officer not execute the warrant, noting that the officers were in the field when they made the determination to arrest Rodriguez. Rodriguez appealed this case to the United States Supreme Court; however, they refused to consider the case.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decided a case that reaffirmed this ruling on August 14, 2006.

In this case, the plaintiff was arrested on an outstanding warrant. The warrant was for a “Margaret Irene Chapman” who was described as a black female, 5’4” tall and 210 pounds. The plaintiff was arrested at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when she presented identification that matched the description on the warrant including full name, date of birth, and sex. Her social security number matched except that the first two numbers were transposed. The plaintiff was one inch taller and forty pounds lighter than the description on the warrant. The Court noted that there were many similarities and one significant difference. This significant difference was that the plaintiff was a white female and the warrant was for a black female. The Court cited Rodriguez v. Farrell as precedent and held that, “given the totality of the circumstances, the arrest was reasonable even in the face of an obvious racial discrepancy.” The facts that make up the totality of the circumstances in this case were the following: the matching names, matching dates of birth, virtually identical social security numbers, and strikingly similar physical characteristics. Thus, the Court held that one material difference will not transform a reasonable arrest into an unreasonable arrest.


+2
  • 063_max50

    jims4

    over 6 years ago

    2610 Comments

    Lucky for him he didn't resist and get his ass kicked. Just go with it and move on. Mistakes happen. The cop was acting upon the information he had. Kudos to the court on this one.

  • Red-headed_vulture_max50

    matt2749

    over 6 years ago

    258 Comments

    Yep as long as your acting under color of law, your O.K.

  • Pic26_max50

    Slicktop87

    over 6 years ago

    248 Comments

    Same happened to me, filed Personel Complaint against me and threatened to sue. The PC was "Unfounded" and never heard anything about a lawsuit.

  • Th_wtf_max50

    trooper6

    over 6 years ago

    304 Comments

    Was sued in a mistaken identity situation. Court found in our favor as well.

  • Graw_orb_glow_max50

    Ghost87

    over 6 years ago

    28 Comments

    OMFG! THE COURTS PROTECTING LAW ENFORCEMENT! HOLY CRAP! AMAZING!

    stay safe people

  • Zee-2_max50

    Wolvarine

    over 6 years ago

    28900 Comments

    Mistakes Happen!!

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