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9th Cir. Decides Mistaken Identity Case: Cops Arrest Dad on Warrant for Son

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

There is a lesson in this police brutality case, and it's not about the Constitution. It's about having the same constitution as a suspect in a criminal case.

Merritt L. Sharp, III, shared the same name with his son, Merritt L. Sharp, IV, as well as some naturally recurring physical traits. The big differences were their age and a record; Sharp IV was a felon.

Those obvious differences escaped police officers, who arrested the dad, handcuffed him, twisted his arm and tore his rotator cuff, threw him in the back of a police car, searched him and his house -- all on a warrant for his son. You'd of thought the police would've realized their mistake a little sooner.

"Arrest Warrant Gone Wrong"

After the police finally released the father, he sued for violations of his constitutional rights and other wrongs in Sharp III v. County of Orange. The defendants moved for summary judgment claiming immunity, but the trial judge denied their motion.

On appeal, a divided panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part. The judges all agreed, however, that the police violated Sharp III's constitutional rights.

"This case arises out of the execution of an arrest warrant gone wrong," they said.

Even so, the majority said the officers had a qualified immunity for federal claims based on the arrest, excessive force, and searches, but not for retaliation; the dissent would have affirmed on all causes, including Cal. Civ. Code Section 52.1, and common law claims for false imprisonment, assault and battery.

Immunity and Retaliation

The appeals court said that the police acted unreasonably, but that they were immune based on mistaken identity. That immunity ended, however, once they knew they had made a mistake and still kept Sharp III in handcuffs.

While sitting in the patrol car, he swore at the deputies and threatened to sue them. In response, one officer said: "If you weren't being so argumentative, I'd probably just put you on the curb."

For that reason, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court's ruling on the retaliation claim. The appeals court also concluded the officers had no immunity for the state law violations.

It was not the first time Sharp had sued police. Officers raided his shop in 1997, allegedly searching for evidence against his son. A jury awarded him $1 million for the warrantless raid.

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