False Imprisonment Claim Yields $70,000 Settlement in New Mexico

ABC News reports that a New Mexico man agreed to a $70,000 settlement with the county whose officials arrested and wrongfully imprisoned him for several days in 2009. Anthony Ortiz was arrested because a clerk entered his Social Security number onto an arrest warrant for another man of the same name. The clerk found Mr. Ortiz’s SSN on an emergency 911 call log, but failed to determine whether the Anthony Ortiz listed in the log was the same person as the man whose name appeared on the arrest warrant.

Barbed Wire Fence (Woodnick)This unfortunate case illustrates a few key points about our legal system and steps that everyone should take to protect themselves in the event of a misunderstanding.

  1. Information used by police officers is sometimes inaccurate. In Arizona, efforts have been made to unify the databases that law enforcement agencies use to store and transmit information about people. The Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) collects and stores information about arrests, warrants, fingerprints (via the Automated Fingerprint Identification System – a subject we covered here), and other information. The Arizona Judicial Branch maintains a similar service for court cases throughout the state (you can find Arizona cases at azcourts.gov).Although the state has made progress toward ensuring that public officers have access to all of the information they need, the unfortunate reality is that these databases are incomplete. A judgment in the Glendale Municipal Court, for example, may not be reported to the Judicial Branch so that the Superior Court can easily find it. There may be no Maricopa County record of an arrest made in Coconino County, even if the person was fingerprinted. These holes in the records can present problems for police officers, judges, CPS workers, and others because important information may be left out of their decision-making processes.

    In rare cases, they may even lead to mistaken identities and false arrests like the one New Mexico. Conversely, incomplete records may lead police officers to believe that a person has no criminal record warranting arrest (like a past domestic violence conviction, for example) and respond inappropriately to an emergency call by their potential victim.

  2. Failure to carry a photo ID can have negative consequences. It is always in your best interest to carry a photo ID. If a police officers reasonably suspects that you have violated the law, he or she may detain you temporarily in order to ascertain your identity and to investigate the crime that they believe you may have committed (or are about to commit). Although Arizona’s “stop and identify” statute, A.R.S. § 13-2412, requires only that you state your full name, a photo ID can quickly and easily resolve the situation without unnecessary conflict with the officer. Other laws, such as the infamous SB 1070, may require officers to inquire further about your identity and legal status. Although not directly at issue in the New Mexico case, the importance of carrying an ID cannot be understated in the context of misidentification.
  3. Protect your Social Security number. Among the many mistakes that the New Mexico clerk made, matching a Social Security number to a name on an arrest warrant without any further verification was particularly egregious. Although this may sound like the prologue to a Mel Gibson film or an excerpt from Orwell’s 1984, each time that you give your Social Security number can lead to identity theft, mistaken identity, or some related problem.

Data (Woodnick)Use care to ensure that you always ask questions when anyone, including public officials, ask for your SSN. Ask why they need it, whether it will be stored (and how it will be protected), and whether there are any consequences for refusing to comply. For Anthony Ortiz, giving his SSN to an officer during a response to a 911 call probably seemed harmless, but improper handling of the information ultimately led to his wrongful imprisonment.

Another lesson to be learned (or re-learned if you follow this blog) from Mr. Ortiz’s unfortunate case is that you have legally protected rights which can be vindicated in the event of violation. Anthony Ortiz consulted with a lawyer and received a $70,000 settlement for the injury to his personal liberty and security.

Although it may seem as though no harm was done – after all, Mr. Ortiz was released after a few days – the impact of improper behavior by state officials should be understated. False imprisonment, malicious prosecution, prosecutorial misconduct, and other wrongs are unfortunately common. It is the duty of citizens and the province of attorneys to guard against abuse by standing up for individual rights.


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