Who’s Who, Police Version

With all the sophisticated means available to law enforcement to identify individuals, the norm remains your name.  If the police are looking for someone named Joe Smith, and you happen to have a name like Joe Smith, the police may be looking for you.  So what if you aren’t that Joe Smith.  Arrest first and let the courts sort it out.

This is what happened to Denver’s Christina Fourhorn, as she was about to pick up her daughter from school.

(CNN) — Three police cars pulled into Christina Fourhorn’s front yard one afternoon just before she was supposed to pick up her daughter at school. The officers had a warrant for her arrest.

“What do you mean robbery?” Fourhorn remembers asking the officers. Her only brushes with the law had been a few speeding tickets.

She was locked up in a Colorado jail. They took her clothes and other belongings and handed her an oversize black-and-white striped uniform. She protested for five days, telling jailers the arrest was a mistake. Finally, her husband borrowed enough money to bail her out.
As it turns out, the warrant was for a woman named Christin Fourhorn from Oklahoma.  Oops. Sorry.  Accidents happen, you know.

The ACLU took this case as part of their effort to demonstrate that misidentity arrests are commonplace and require changes.  It took Christina almost two years to have her record expunged after her case was dismissed for mistaken identity.  The problem, of course, is multifold, as one would surmise that even if the cops were so sloppy and incompetent as to arrest the wrong person based on something so clearly capricious as the same, or in this case similar, name, the rest of the system would immediately crank up to correct the error.  No such luck.

It’s not that people arrested for mistaken identity don’t let anyone know about it.  They invariably do, and loudly.  It’s that the system, from cop to court, would rather err on the side of covering their butt than believing the “perp”.  Better to keep the potential defendant in jail than risk the front page of the paper for letting the bad guy go free. 

While this concern might serve as impetus for being a bit more cautious in exercising discretion in the first place, like arresting someone based on a warrant that’s close (but no cigar) only after doing everything possible to ascertain whether they’ve got the right person, the fact remains that it happens with some regularity.  Whether based on a name, a variation of a name, an alias or some other indicator that reduces a law-abiding citizen to a wanted murderer, once the cuffs are slapped on, the presumption is that you’re the bad guy and it shifts to you to prove otherwise.  This is often difficult to do from a jail cell, or without knowing anything about the real perp, or without having evidence beyond the mere fact that you just aren’t someone else. Proving the negative is always a problem.

As the CNN story notes, this problem is significantly exacerbated by the prevalence of identity theft, where names have become fungible and may be widely bought, sold and used. 

The gut reaction to these fiascoes is that we should, given technology, be able to absolutely identify people through more reliable methods, such as fingerprints or DNA.  Yet the unintended consequences of such notions, providing the government with a vast database of “inside information” about people is rife for abuse, both now and in the future.  Further, these “more reliable” methods aren’t nearly as reliable as people assume, and can lead to the same mistaken identity problems, but are even harder to correct.

My solution is decidedly low tech:  Think harder before doing something stupid.  In almost every instance, there are a variety of factors available to police to ascertain whether they have the right person or not.  Rather than rely on only one factor, name for instance, check all the descriptors, check the person you are about to nab to find out if they have been an upstanding member of the community for the past 30 years and never lived in Oklahoma. Just think before you act.

For those police officers who shrug off these mistakes as an unfortunate, but unavoidable, consequence of trying to do their job, I offer one thought.  You wouldn’t be so cavalier if it was your wife who was arrested, or your daughter who was left at school waiting for mom to pick her up.  Would it kill you to try a little harder not to cause as much harm as possible?

5 thoughts on “Who’s Who, Police Version

  1. Libertarian Advocate

    Brandon Mayfield’s name jumped immediately to mind when I read this post.

    Could police dig deeper to rule out the possibility of a mistaken identity? ABSOLUTELY.

    Is it likely they ever will in the absence of departmental guidelines to ensure their best efforts were taken to avoid a case of mistaken identity?

    Probably not without the negative incentive of a prior large judgment against the department for sloppy practices. Who knows whether the FBI ever learned to use caution in the wake of its conduct in the Mayfield case. Somehow, my gut tells me its unlikely.

  2. SHG

    Perfect example.  Even with the extreme scrutiny given Mayfield’s case, they still blew it completely.  That case is a reflection of how the first mistake dictates the refusal to admit error, or even revisit assumptions.  Better to hold hard and fast to a mistake than ever admit error.  The government has a hard time admitting it’s fallible.

  3. Lokkju

    It would seem the best incentive would be to remove police immunity if they serve an invalid warrant – hold them actually liable for serving a warrant that is provable false. Even a single letter difference, or non matching dates of brith, should make the warrant invalid. Essentially, remove the incentives to ignoring problems, and make sure that it hits the officer/DA personally, not just the department.
    This doesn’t solve stolen identity problem though…

  4. Rich2506

    This has been a MAJOR problem with the “no-fly” list ever since it was started. No system is foolproof and by not having any means of getting people off the list even though the “Muhammad Atta” in question may actually be an 11-year old boy, innocent people are unable to use air transportation even though it takes two seconds to see that “We’ve got the wrong guy.”
    It is absolutely an indispensable requirement that a judge be able to remove people from the “no-fly” list.

  5. SHG

    The “solution” needs to be more expeditious and effective than forcing an 11 year old boy to go to a judge for relief.  It doesn’t do much to cover his immediate need to board the plane with the folks.

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