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Once Court Orders Arrestee Held, Police Have No Duty to Investigate Mistaken Identity

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that once an arrested person has been brought before a court and ordered held, law enforcement has no duty to verify claims of mistaken identity.

Chicago police stopped Emiliano Hernandez for traffic violations on June 9, 1999. A records check revealed an arrest warrant for an Enrique Hernandez who had the exact same birth date, height, weight and eye color, which was returned to police after they entered Emiliano's driver's license number into their computer. They arrested Emiliano. Unnoticed, however, was that police had entered one wrong digit of Emiliano's driver's license into the computer.

Police brushed off Emiliano's contention that he was not the fugitive "Enrique Hernandez." Twelve hours later, Emiliano went before a judge. He pleaded guilty to all three traffic offenses he was charged with. He and his lawyer, however, never advised the court that there was a mistaken identity on the warrant. In fact, they never corrected the court when it referred to Emiliano as Enrique. The court ordered Emiliano held under $5,000 bond until a hearing on July 1, 1999.

Before that hearing, and after Emiliano was released on bond on June 24, a prosecutor discovered the mistake and dismissed the charges against Emiliano. Emiliano then sued the deputies, city and Sheriff. A jury awarded him $750,000 against the Sheriff while the district court granted summary judgment to the city. Both parties appealed.

The Seventh Circuit held constitutional the city's policy of only relying upon information it deemed reliable to verify identity. Thus, city employees were not required to review the passport that Emiliano's wife brought to the police station.

The Court found the Sheriff had a policy of ignoring all claims of misidentification. It held "that is an entirely lawful policy unless the custodian knows that the judge refuses to make an independent decision or there is doubt about which person the judge ordered held."

The Sheriff was told to hold Emiliano. Thus, there was no doubt he was the person to be held. Once given an appearance in court, a Fourth Amendment claim vanishes. Emiliano's claim could only then rest on the Due Process Clause. Here, there was only the risk of error in the process. The Court stated that Emiliano was "one case in 10,000, and there would not have been an error in his situation either had he or his lawyer only raised the subject" before the judge at his hearing.

The Sheriff had an obligation to abide by the court order to hold Emiliano. As such, the jury award was vacated and the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the city was affirmed. See: Hernandez v. Sheahan, 455 F.3d 772 (7th Cir. 2006), petition for rehearing en banc denied.

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