The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed suit Monday against the City and County of Denver and seven law enforcement officers on behalf of five people who were mistakenly arrested for crimes they did not commit. While the suit focuses on a handful of plaintiffs who suffered the effects of sloppy and negligent police work, the problem likely extends far beyond the five individuals, says ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein.
“We don’t know how often this goes on,” said Silverstein at a press conference on Monday morning, adding that the city of Denver doesn’t keep a log of its mistaken identity cases. It is very possible, he said, that more victims will come forward as the suit progresses. In fact, the ACLU has prosecuted similar cases in Lakewood and Denver in past years.
The suit details the stories of five individuals who were arrested — and in most cases jailed — on warrants that referred to or meant to refer to different people. Though the suit seeks monetary damages for the plaintiffs, Silverstein said he hopes that it will force Denver officials to make sure that police are arresting actual suspects and not innocent people. “We are hoping that Denver is willing to talk about instituting policies and procedures,” he said.
The city responded to a request for comment by providing an email statement from manager of safety Al LaCabe, which reads, in part, “Our police and sheriffs make every effort to ensure they correctly identify suspects, however, the identification process is often quite difficult. The single-most important factor is to guarantee an individual’s right to be presented to the courts in a timely manner to ensure their rights are upheld.”
Four of the five plaintiffs reported that it took them days and in one case weeks to prove they were innocent.
One of the victims, Christina Ann FourHorn, was taken from her Sterling, Colo., home in March of 2007 based on a faulty warrant that incorrectly identified her as the suspect in an assault and robbery case. The real suspect, named Christin Fourhorn, is seven years younger than FourHorn, weighs 90 pounds less and is tattooed. FourHorn had never been arrested before, and she spent five days in jail pleading with officers over her innocence. At the ACLU press conference, FourHorn reported that her husband obtained documents proving that she was on sick leave from work on the day that the original crime took place. But, she said, officers refused to listen to him.
“I know you hear this every day, but there are certain people who really are innocent,” she said she told them.
FourHorn was eventually released on bail. Denver later dismissed the case but neglected to tell FourHorn or her lawyer about it until she drove from Sterling to Denver for another court hearing. FourHorn nearly lost her job as a caretaker for disabled adults because of the incident and said at the press conference that her daughter missed a week of school because she could not stop crying.
“It still affects us,” said FourHorn, adding that when police officers drive by her house her entire family bristles. “I have a class four felony on my record. [The Colorado Bureau of Investigations] won’t clean it.”
Other plaintiffs in the case detailed similar stories of confusing and terrifying arrests. The four other victims were apprehended on warrants that named completely different individuals with different names. Several said that police officers would not listen to their claims of innocence, dismissing evidence that could have exonerated them on the spot.
Plaintiff Dennis Michael Smith, a public high school teacher, was confused for a criminal suspect named Dennis Allen Smith on multiple occasions. In order to clear his name for good, Smith had obtained a letter from the Colorado Bureau of Investigations proving he is a different person. One day in January, however, he went to the Denver county jail to visit a former student, and he was apprehended after showing his identification. Smith was not allowed to walk to his car to obtain the CBI letter, and he was transferred to the city jail, where he spent the afternoon.
“They verified that this is the wrong guy and then they released me,” he said at the press conference.
Another plaintiff, Samuel Powell Moore, was arrested by Denver police four separate times for an Aurora warrant seeking a different man with a different name. He was arrested for the fourth time last year and spent eight days in jail.
Plaintiff Muse Jama was arrested last year on a warrant for a different individual and and also spent eight days in jail. And plaintiff Jose Ernesto Ibarra spent 26 days in jail for a similar situation.
Silverstein said that mistaken identity arrests are inevitable with the Denver Police Department apprehending thousands of people each year, but he said that the problem could probably be fixed if officers confirmed they had the right person within hours, not days or weeks, of the initial arrest. He added that the city should be more responsive to complaints; several plaintiffs said that they tried to file official complaints with the city and were told they could not do so.
FourHorn, for her part, said she hopes that Denver fixes its procedures so others won’t endure what she went through. “I just want something done so it does not happen to others.”