LOS ANGELES (CN) - A federal judge refused to dismiss a class action accusing San Bernardino County of wrongfully arresting and jailing hundreds of innocent people on warrants for other people.
Lead plaintiff Manuel Bravo Martinez in April sued the county
and its sheriff's department and the city of Colton and its police, claiming as many as 450 were jailed after police and sheriff's officers failed to check identities properly.
Martinez was jailed at the San Bernardino County Jail Central Detention Center on Aug. 11, 2015 after a Colton police officer stopped him during a morning drive for failing to use the proper child restraint in his vehicle.
Martinez said officers arrested him after running a warrant check and finding an outstanding warrant for another Manuel Martinez who was facing fraud, drugs and weapon charges.
But there were four identifiable crucial differences between the subject of the warrant and him, Martinez said.
Martinez's middle name is Bravo, which is not true of the suspect. Nor is Martinez a Jr., as the suspect is.
Their birth dates are two months and eight days apart, Martinez had an address in Hawaii though the man in the warrant lived in California, and their drivers' license numbers are different.
That didn't stop Colton police Officer Matthew Collins from arresting and jailing him despite his protests, Martinez said. He said jailers too should have realized their error because his fingerprints were on file from a 2007 misdemeanor conviction for reckless driving.
Martinez spent the night in jail, was arraigned the next day and posted $100,000 bond. He was cleared when San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Raymond Haight "did what the jailers and arresting officer should have done but refused to do" and compared his identifying information with the identifiers on the warrant, Martinez said in the complaint.
Martinez is represented by Donald Cook, who has made it a mission
to fix California's warrant system.
"This is not the result of aberrational behavior," Cook said in an interview. "This is the result of a systematic failure by law enforcement to simply exonerate the innocent, the people that they really know, should know, are innocent. They have an attitude of they don't really care if in fact it's not the right person."
Cook has filed multiple lawsuits against Los Angeles County to address the same problem. In Martinez's April 14 lawsuit, Cook says the problem could be solved easily, if officials use the unique identifying numbers on warrants.
"Related to this are the agencies' indifference to instances where the same person is repeatedly arrested on a warrant meant for another, an indifference that manifests itself by the agencies' refusal to do anything to prevent the person's re-arrest on the same warrant notwithstanding the agencies' knowledge, beforehand, that the person is not the warrant's subject," the lawsuit states.
San Bernardino County asked the court to throw the case out, but on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder refused to do that.
Snyder said Martinez had has sufficiently pleaded that Colton and its police department have customs and policies that could indicate deliberate indifference to Martinez's rights under the Fourth Amendment.
Martinez also made a false arrest claim under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and Snyder refused the county's request to dismiss it because it was not the arresting agency.
Snyder did find, however, that Colton and its police were not liable for the alleged false arrest because Martinez was booked in a county, rather than a city, jail. She also found that as an arresting officer Collins was entitled to immunity, but not San Bernardino County Sheriff Jim McMahon.
The lawsuit contends that sheriff's department records going back five years show that up to 450 prisoners have been jailed on warrants for other people, and that McMahon knew of the problem but did nothing about it.
Snyder gave Martinez until Sept. 8 to amend the complaint against Collins, regarding immunity.
The Sheriff's Department was not available for comment after business hours Thursday.
Colton, pop. 55,000, is immediately south of the city of San Bernardino, toward the eastern edge of the enormous Los Angeles metroplex. Famous Old West Sheriff Wyatt Earp spent his last years in Colton, running a jewelry store.