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But, officer, you got the wrong guy

False arrests wreak havoc on the courts, police and the wrongly accused

Donald Freeman, a 49-year-old Qwest communications consultant, was dumbfounded when he arrived home from work one evening last September to find an arrest warrant in his mailbox.

'Manufacture of a controlled substance' said the warrant. Pretty serious stuff in anyone's book.

But Freeman, who had never been in trouble with the law, didn't panic. He knew it couldn't be him because he hadn't had anything to do with illegal drugs since college.

Besides, he was three inches taller than the person described in the warrant and had blue eyes instead of brown.

'I thought if it was the wrong guy, it was gonna be a piece of cake,' he said.

He was wrong.

At 9 o'clock that night, six Portland police officers showed up at his Southeast Portland home to arrest him. At first they were less than impressed by the physical differences that Freeman tried to point out to them.

He didn't have much to work with because the warrant was mysteriously lacking in specific personal information, such as a middle name, Social Security number or birth date.

During 40 minutes of what Freeman called 'negotiations,' however, the police phoned their headquarters to discover that the actual suspect Ñ a person by the same name Ñ had recently been hospitalized for serious burns after a fire broke out at his apartment, in which he allegedly grew marijuana.

After Freeman removed his shirt to show them he had no burns, the officers finally were convinced. Before they left, however, they advised him to have an attorney clear up the matter, which Freeman promptly did.

Freeman had escaped the mistaken arrest, but that wasn't the end of his nightmare.

Trouble replay

Two months later it happened again. While buying a shotgun for his wife at a gun expo, the dealer checked his background and called police after noticing an outstanding warrant under his name.

This time, in front of his wife and 6-year-old daughter, he was handcuffed and led out of the show, then held for five hours at the county's temporary booking facility before being released.

Last week, Freeman and his attorney, Donald Dartt, filed a federal lawsuit against Multnomah County and the two Portland police officers who arrested him at the gun expo. The lawsuit claims he suffered 'embarrassment, humiliation, frustration and inconvenience' over the mix-up and seeks damages for his arrest and detention without probable cause.

The suit also blames Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Robert Jones with allowing the second arrest to occur by failing to correct the identification information after Freeman's lawyer alerted him to the initial mix-up. In such situations a 'do not confuse' tag can be added to warrants so the police won't make the same mistake again.

Sgt. Brian Schmautz, a police spokesman, said such mix-ups happen on rare occasions. Confirming identities is more easily done when a photograph of the person is on file, he said. If not, as was the case with the Donald Freemans, confusion may happen.

Dogged by 'probable cause'

Freeman certainly isn't the only victim of mistaken identity.

Portland attorney Spencer Neal recalled that one of his clients was arrested on a warrant three years ago because of a clerical mistake made by the county. The clerk had entered the name Laine Taylor in place of a man police were seeking, Larry Taylor.

Larry Taylor is a black man, and Laine Taylor is a white woman; she didn't handle the stress of the situation well because she has multiple sclerosis, Neal said. The woman ended up spending a night in jail while authorities straightened out the mistake.

'It was kind of an unusual mess-up,' Neal said, because of the obvious mistaken identity. 'There needs to be ways to check these.'

Steve Ungar, a private criminal defense attorney, said that such mix-ups are also common in cases of stolen identity.

'The burden on the government is to presume a person's innocence, but if the police believe they have probable cause to charge someone, that's a very big burden. The person has to prove they're innocent. It's pretty backwards,' Ungar said.

Tom Ryan, chief attorney at the metropolitan public defender's office, said he's heard of cases in which siblings give police each other's names to get themselves out of an arrest.

When a person gives an officer an alias, he said, the officer is usually able to sniff it out and place the right person in custody, but if the officer doesn't, the person with the unfortunate luck of having someone else's fake name will be summoned to court.

'These things tend to come up on minor cases where the police aren't committing the resources to figure everything out right upfront,' he said.

Ryan said the district attorney's office typically does a good job of preventing further errors. 'They'll try to come up with identifying characteristics that distinguish the person, like their Social Security number, a scar or tattoo.

'They always try to avoid this mistake,' he said, 'but they are understandably cautious because they don't want somebody trying to pull a scam on them.'