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Arrest the Wrong Mario Garcia, Lose Qualified Immunity

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

When Mario Garcia was arrested for a DUI in Riverside County, California, the police booking system matched him to an outstanding felony warrant in Los Angeles. Garcia was quickly transferred to L.A.

Except the police had the wrong Mario Garcia. And despite Garcia's numerous objections, officers refused to perform even the most basic checks, checks which would have revealed their mistake. In so failing, the Ninth Circuit ruled on Wednesday, the Los Angeles County, the L.A. Sheriff's Department, and individual officers forfeited their legal immunity.

You've Got the Wrong Guy, Really

Mario Alberto Garcia was arrested for driving under the influence in 2012. The state's "Livescan" system connected him to a warrant from nearly two decades before -- a felony arrest warrant. Garcia's name matched, mostly, and so did his birthday, so despite his protests, he was transferred and detained in Los Angeles.

But, aside from his name and date of birth, nothing else lined up. The warrant was for Mario L. Garcia, not Mario A. Garcia. This Mario Garcia is also seven inches taller and 120 pounds heavier than the Garcia identified in the warrant. And none of his biometrics -- fingerprints and the like -- matched those of Mario L. Garcia.

Garcia repeatedly complained that the police had the wrong man, yet officers refused to consider his statements. After he was released, Garcia sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

What About Baker?

Defendants argued that the Supreme Court's 1979 ruling in Baker v. McCollan meant that officers had no duty to investigate Garcia's objections. In Baker, a plaintiff was arrested and detained on a warrant intended for his brother. There, the Supreme Court ruled that "a person arrested pursuant to a [valid] warrant ... is not constitutionally entitled to a separate judicial determination that there is probably cause to detain him pending trial."

But, the Ninth Circuit ruled, that does not foreclose all 1983 suits for arrest-related wrongful detention. Indeed, Ninth Circuit precedent has interpreted Baker to suggest that "incarceration based on mistaken identity might violate the Due Process Clause in some circumstances."

Several Ninth Circuit cases have found that a failure to investigate objections "when further investigation is warranted" can result in due process violations and the loss of qualified immunity.

What's Process Is Due?

As the court noted, Garcia might not have been entitled to a flawless investigation, but even a cursory comparison of Garcia to the warrant subject should have led officers to question whether the person described in the warrant was Garcia." According to the court, Garcia's claims of mistaken identity deserved at least a de minimis investigation.

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