Denver law enforcement has racked up more than a half million dollars in legal fees for jailing innocent people its officers have misidentified.
The city council on Monday approved a resolution paying $337,250 to settle a case brought by an African student, a white high school teacher and a Latino construction worker. Each was jailed because — despite all of Denver’s databases, fingerprint gizmos and other “intelligence” technologies — police officers and sheriffs deputies mistook them for the wrong people.
“The public needs to know that it’s out there and that it happens: The police do a lot of sloppy work and spend a lot of time trying to defend it,” said Muse Jama, who was a Metro State student in 2007 when he was plucked out of his apartment and jailed for eight days on an arrest warrant for a man who used his common Somali name as one of his many aliases.
This week’s city council resolution follows a 2009 legal settlement in which the city paid $232,000 in a case filed by three other victims who were misidentified, one of whom was hauled in because officers confused him for a man who was long dead.
Both lawsuits were brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which documented more than 500 cases in which the wrong people had been arrested by Denver law enforcement. Of those, some had been mistakenly arrested and jailed two, three and even four times.
“We were able to prove there was a widespread policy and practice of tolerating these mistakes… and that it was standard operating procedure,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU, which was awarded $229,750 in costs and attorneys fees in this week’s settlement.
Together, this and the 2009 settlement agreements total $569,250 in city tax dollars.
This week’s payout comes as part of a string of costly legal penalties slapped against the city’s controversy-riddled safety department. Most notably, the city just agreed to the terms of a $6 million federal jury award and legal fees in the case of Marvin Booker, a street preacher killed by sheriffs’ deputies at the city jail in 2010. In August, the city agreed to pay $3.25 million to Jamal Hunter, who was beaten in the jail. Hunter’s civil settlement was the largest in the city’s history.
The safety department also has been under fire over the past year for a string of videotaped excessive force cases. One video shows Sheriffs Deputy Brady Lovingier – son of the former department head – slamming a fully shackled inmate into a window of a courtroom. Another shows deputies Tasering a man on suicide watch after he banged his head against a cell wall.
After those and other cases made headlines earlier this year, Mayor Michael Hancock – who had been notably silent about excessive force in the city’s ranks — demoted Sheriff Gary Wilson. Until a replacement is found, Hancock has appointed Elias Diggins as interim sheriff despite Diggins’ criminal record of “false reporting.”
Hancock and Safety Manager Stephanie O’Malley have pledged reforms in deputies’ use of force and formed commissions to revise city policies and protocols.
The city also pledged reforms after the string of wrongful identity cases were reported in 2008 and 2009. Those involved say there has been progress in negotiating reforms.
“Denver really acknowledged this was a problem and, for the past two and a half years, they’ve been working with ACLU to develop policies that address many of these issues raised by these mistaken identity arrests,” Silverstein said.
Of the $337,250 being paid out in this week’s settlement, $52,000 will go to plaintiff Jose Ernesto Ibarra who in July 2007 mistakenly was jailed for 25 days. Ibarra rightfully had spent nine days in Denver’s jail on a traffic violation, but then deputies wouldn’t release him because they confused him for another man with a discernibly different name, Jose Cayetano Ibarra Almeida, who was wanted on outstanding warrants. The ACLU said deputies wouldn’t bother to compare the two men’s’ fingerprints, mug shots or drivers’ licenses photos – all of which would have shown they were locking up the wrong man. Instead, they told Ibarra’s pregnant wife that he was lying to her about his identity. In a hearing, a judge noticed an “ID issue” and released Ibarra on personal recognizance. Nevertheless, deputies refused to free him for another 22 days, insisting that he was Almeida. During that time, Ibarra missed his son’s first birthday and first steps, and lost his construction job.
Dennis Smith, a Denver high school teacher, was visiting a former student at the jail when he was arrested on a warrant for another Dennis Smith who had a different middle name and tattoos that common sense should have indicated deputies had messed up. For his day in jail, Smith is settling for $5,500.
Jama is being awarded $50,000 for the eight days he spent in jail after having been plucked out of his apartment while studying for a biology exam. Officers insisted that he was an auto theft suspect named Ahmed Alia, who used the common Somali name Muse Jama as one of at least ten aliases. Officers ignored Jama when he showed them his driver’s license, Social Security card and student ID, booking him in jail as Alia and telling him “This is your name now.”
Jama – now married with two kids and working as a clinical researcher at Children’s Hospital – had been turned down for several jobs before his name was cleared of the wrongful arrest. He said he has waited seven years for an acknowledgment of the city’s errors.
“I feel like it took a really, really long time and it’s frustrating to wait for the police department to do the right thing,” he said. “There’s no way I’ll recover from what happened, but it’s a good step forward to making things right.”
Among the plaintiffs in the case that settled in 2009 was disabled former Denver sanitation worker Sam Moore — wrongly jailed four times, including once for eight days even though the man police wanted was dead. Christina FourHorn, a mom from Sterling, was taking a shower when officers showed up to arrest and jail her for five days on a warrant for a
suspect who was seven years younger and weighed 90 pounds less. An officer showed FourHorn photos of the suspect, insisting that she say she was the woman in the pictures.