Nevada’s highest court has struck a blow in favor of police rights to detain innocent people, even when they make the same avoidable mistake over and over again.
Las Vegas Metro cops stopped and detained lifelong city resident Francisco Gonzalez not once, not twice, not even three times — but 11 times over a two-year period, just because they thought he was a wanted drug dealer who was also named Francisco Gonzalez.
The innocent Gonzalez resembled his bad-guy namesake somewhat. According to court filings, he’s the same height as the other Gonzalez and has the same color eyes. The court also said that the two men share a birth date, but the attorney for the “wrong” Gonzalez says that’s not even true.
Gonzalez sued the Vegas police department, saying that the officers who held him — a different one every time — should have been able to figure out that he was not the man they were after and charging them with negligence and false imprisonment for the repeated stops.
A lower court threw out Gonzalez's complaint, so he took it to the Nevada Supreme Court. But on Nov. 21, that court also ruled that he had no claim against the police.
Arresting him was allowed under the “discretionary immunity” granted to police, the court said, ruling that police also had “probable cause” to stop him each time. Gonzalez has never been arrested for anything else.
He even got himself an “identity passport,” a document that alerts police that they might have the wrong man. But that did not stop what Gonzalez’s lawyer, Andrew Lagomarsino, called the police “harassment” which inflicted “irrevocable damage to his mental health, relationships with his employers and relationships with family and friends.”
Lagomarsino said that several factors should have tipped police off that they were detaining the wrong person. In Gonzalez’s court filing, he said the innocent Gonzalez was two years younger than the suspected drug dealer, had different hair color and a tattoo on his left arm that the wanted criminal did not have.
The two men didn’t even live in the same city. Officers were “fully aware that they were arresting and detaining the incorrect person,” Gonzalez's lawyers told the court.
The high court’s ruling said that the judges were “sympathetic to Gonzalez’s plight,” but allowing him to sue cops for arresting him over and over again would “jeopardize the quality of the governmental process” by forcing officers to choose between releasing a “potential criminal” who closely matches the description on a valid warrant — or holding the suspect and running the risk of liability in a lawsuit.
“It’s a tough case,” the lawyer for the police, Craig Anderson, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “You don’t want to be Francisco. But you don’t want a cop in the field trying to make decisions with the fear of liability.”
But the court did not distinguish between police making a seemingly understandable mistake once or twice, and committing the same blunder 11 times.
In fact, when police amended the warrant for Gonzalez’s arrest in 2010, the innocent man’s troubles with law enforcement ended.
Sources: Las Vegas Sun, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Scribd