Friday, August 17, 2007
S.C. Rejects Immunity Defense in Wrongful Imprisonment Case
Officials Liable if They Knew They Had Wrong Suspect, Unanimous Court Says
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Immunity was not an defense for state employees who wrongly jailed a man due to a case of mistaken identity, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices disagreed with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Workman—since retired—and the Court of Appeal, and held that the statutory immunity was no longer applicable once parole agents realized, or should have realized, that Lenin Freud Perez-Torres was not the parolee they thought he was.
Workman granted summary judgment in favor of the state, rejecting Perez-Torres’ argument that it should be held liable for not releasing him when it realized he was not Lenin Salgado Torres.
Perez-Torres—who also used the names Lenin Freud Perez, Lenin Perez, and Lenin F. Perez—was arrested in 1995 for spousal abuse. At that time, he was fingerprinted and assigned a criminal identification and information number to be entered into the criminal history information system.
No charges were filed and Perez-Torres was released. In 1997, another man, Lenin Salgado Torres—who also had used the name Lenin Freud Perez—was arrested for spousal abuse.
Salgado underwent the same procedure as Perez-Torres; his fingerprints were taken, and he was assigned a number to be entered into the system. Unlike Perez-Torres, Salgado pled guilty and was sentenced to prison.
At the time of Salgado’s plea, Los Angeles county authorities checked his criminal history through the system, which returned Perez-Torres’ name and identification number. Authorities then entered Perez-Torres’ number on Salgado’s judgment of conviction.
Banished From U.S.
In 1998, Salgado was released from prison and deported to Mexico. A condition of his probation was that he not return to the United States.
When a person is paroled, the parolee’s name is entered in a database. If the parolee is later arrested, the system notifies the parole office monitoring the parolee.
Evidence presented in connection with the state’s summary judgment motion, showed that because Perez-Torres’ number was listed on Salgado’s judgment, it was Perez-Torres’ number that was entered into the parolee database.
The Department of Corrections later notified the Department of Justice that the identification numbers assigned to Perez-Torres and Salgado should be consolidated because it appeared that the numbers were for only one person, not two.
Subsequently, an investigation by the Department of Justice revealed that the two numbers involved two separate people, but they failed to inform the Department of Corrections of the error.
In 2000, Perez-Torres was arrested for driving under the influence. After checking his criminal history, police learned of his prior arrest and assigned number.
Perez-Torres’ fingerprints and number were sent to the Department of Justice, which indicated that he was a parolee. Notice of the arrest was sent to parole agent David Chaney.
State parole agents, as well as federal Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, later appeared at Perez-Torres’ home. After determining he resembled a picture of Salgado, he was arrested.
Perez-Torres testified he repeatedly told agents they had arrested the wrong man. Agent Chris Kane noticed the disparity between Perez-Torres’ and Salgado’s height—Salgado was about six inches taller—and mentioned his doubts to other agents.
However, Kane was assured they had the right parolee, and fingerprint verification was deemed unnecessary. It was nearly a month before Chaney, at the request of Perez-Torres’ lawyer, finally requested that Perez-Torres’ fingerprints be compared to Salgado’s.
Perez-Torres was released five days later. He sued federal immigration authorities and parole agents for false imprisonment and negligence.
The government agencies claimed immunity under Government Code Sec. 820.2, which protects public entities from liability for “discretionary decisions,” and Sec. 845.8(a), which says a public agency will not be held liable for “[a]ny injury resulting from determining whether to parole or release a prisoner or from determining the terms and conditions of his parole or release or from determining whether to revoke his parole or release.”
But Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for the high court, said the immunity was limited to the decision-making process. She cited Johnson v. State of California (1968) 69 Cal.2d 782, in which the court held that juvenile authorities could be held liable for failing to advise foster parents that a child placed in their care had violent propensities.
Kennard explained that “Johnson concluded that although the basic policy decision (such as standards for parole) warrants immunity, ‘subsequent ministerial actions in the implementation of that basic decision still must face case-by-case adjudication on the question of negligence.’”
The justice elaborated that “the state defendants’ conduct in keeping plaintiff in jail after they knew or should have known that he was the wrong man was—like the failure in Johnson to warn the foster parents of the youth’s dangerous propensities—an action implementing the basic policy decision and thus outside the statutory immunity, making it subject to legal redress on the question of negligence by the state.”
The case was argued in the state Supreme Court by Donald W. Cook for the plaintiff and Deputy Attorney General Paul C. Epstein for the state. John Burton authored an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff for LA Police Watch.
The case is Perez-Torres v. State of California, 07 S.O.S. 5095.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company