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Ventura County, California Settles Wrongful Arrest Class-action Suit for $350,000

In September 2011, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office (VCSO) agreed to settle a class-action civil rights lawsuit alleging that innocent people had been jailed when VCSO officials failed and/or refused to use readily available technological means (such as fingerprint identification) to verify that people being booked into the Ventura County jail system were actually the people named in arrest warrants rather than people who merely shared the same name as someone with an outstanding warrant.

The settlement agreement sets aside a fund of $120,000 to resolve claims made by former prisoners who can establish they were booked into a jail operated by VCSO based solely on a warrant intended for another person, during the roughly three-year time period covered by the settlement beginning on December 30, 2008. For each verified “incarceration incident” during the specified period, a class member will receive $3,000 so long as the total number of claims does not exceed 40.

If fewer than 40 claims are filed, any balance remaining in the class settlement fund will revert to the County of Ventura. On the other hand, if the number of claims exceeds 40, the total settlement fund will be distributed on a pro-rata basis per incident; e.g., verified claimants would each receive an amount equal to the settlement fund of $120,000 divided by the total number of claims.

As of September 30, 2011 at least 10 plaintiffs had been confirmed as class members. The attorney representing the county estimated that about 100 people would file claims, with around 25 of those ultimately being confirmed as class members. Other attorneys, however, suggested that the number of verified claimants could be higher given the long-standing problem of misidentification errors by the VCSO. Notice of the class-action settlement was made to potential claimants via newspaper, TV, radio and Internet ads.

In addition to the monetary component of the settlement, the defendants agreed to make policy changes to ensure that prisoners booked into VCSO jails are the correct people named in arrest warrants. According to court pleadings, “As a result of this litigation, Defendants have agreed to substantial injunctive relief provisions including significant changes in their policies and procedures which will adequately address claims of mistaken identity incarceration incidents and guard against future incidents. Most importantly, Defendants have agreed to shift their primary means of identifying suspects at the booking stage from names and aliases to electronic fingerprint identification.”

Despite the settlement payouts and policy changes, the defendants, including Ventura County, the VCSO and then-Sheriff Bob Brooks, denied the allegations in the complaint and did not admit liability.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in 2010 after Charles Velasquez was arrested by VCSO officials on two warrants under his name as a result of identity theft by his ex-wife’s boyfriend, Arturo Gonzalez. Velasquez was held in the Ventura County jail for nine days despite repeated protestations of his innocence and despite the fact that VCSO officials knew or should have known that Gonzalez had stolen his identity.

The identity discrepancy should have been apparent because, about nine months earlier, Gonzalez had been booked and held in the same jail on a felony charge of falsely impersonating Velasquez; he had been convicted of that crime and sentenced to state prison; and a comparison of booking photos, fingerprints and/or physical characteristics (such as tattoos) would have revealed that Velasquez was not the person named in the arrest warrants.

It was only after two Los Angeles County detectives picked up Velasquez on a no-bail warrant from that county that the mistaken identity was discovered; the detectives compared Velasquez’s likeness to Gonzalez’s booking photo and immediately realized they had the wrong person. By then, however, Velasquez had lost his job as a forklift operator.

On July 10, 2012 the district court granted final approval of the settlement agreement, including $175,000 in attorney’s fees and costs, an additional payment of $55,000 to Velasquez as class representative and appointment of a special master to oversee the injunctive relief provisions of the settlement. See: Velasquez v. County of Ventura, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:10-cv-10080-CBM-PJW.

Additional source: Ventura County Star

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Related legal case

Velasquez v. County of Ventura