The Never-Ending Problem of Mistaken Arrests

A few years ago, I read a newspaper article about a man who had been arrested after a traffic stop because of a clerical error. The arresting officer relied on information in a database that failed to reflect the reality that the man had paid a small fine; instead, because someone somewhere made a simple data entry mistake, an arrest warrant was generated by the system, and the officer arrested the motorist under the reasonable belief that the information he was provided was correct. The term “Kafka-esque” is almost hackneyed by now, but it certainly fit the arrestee’s situation, which only got worse from there. The man was taken to jail, stripped naked, and cavity-searched, before spending a week behind bars at two facilities trying to clear his name. Years later, as a final insult, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court determined that his constitutional rights had not been violated.

The case is Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington (New Jersey), decided in 2012, and I still find it astonishing. Of course, the high court was following its logic from a long line of precedents, and I agree with many of the rules it relied on. If a law enforcement officer, like this one, is presented with a bench warrant, then it is entirely reasonable to rely on it to arrest someone. If an arrestee is brought into a jail or similar institution, then safety needs do require a thorough search for weapons. And, if I remember correctly, the county released the man once it realized its error. In sum, it would have taken a significant break from precedent to declare this unfortunate man’s plight a violation of the Fourth Amendment, constitutional due process, or another constitutional protection, despite its obvious absurdity and injustice in hindsight.

So, why do I bring up that case here and now? Over the weekend, a strange tale of law enforcement error in York County reminded me of it. About two weeks earlier, three suspects had been arrested by the Buxton police in connection with a home invasion and robbery; Michael Crocker, one of the suspects, had been lured out of a hiding place in the woods with the aid of a promise of Mountain Dew and pizza. He maintained that he was innocent. His lawyer, Amy Fairfield, commenced an investigation that, in a matter of days, exonerated both her client and the other suspects. Unfortunately for Crockett, the dismissal of criminal charges came after he had suffered collateral damage to his personal life. After his name and mug shot were plastered across the local news media, a large part of the court of public opinion, no doubt, convicted him immediately. He has claimed that people have threatened his life, even after the charges were dismissed. I would guess that many people will always assume that these suspects were “guilty of something.” Why else would the police have arrested them? (His neck tattoos do nothing to help his reputation.) Also, I do not know whether he paid Fairfield himself, but, if he did, I am sure the cost to defend him and investigate his case quickly ran into several hundred, if not several thousand, dollars. The news stories have been short on details as to what information led the police to this trio of suspects, but let us assume that they had arrest warrants supported by probable cause to believe that the suspects had committed the crimes they were charged with. Their constitutional rights, then? Satisfied.

Mistaken arrests undoubtedly occur every day in the United States, with enormous tolls on the individuals who are thrown into the criminal justice system. The arresting officers and jailers may mistreat them. The resulting public humiliation, stress, and anxiety cannot be undone. The costs for privately-retained legal help, bail bonds, and lost wages generally are not refunded to the arrestees. Worst of all, someone who is thrown into a cell with actual violent criminals is at a realistic risk of a rape, beating, or stabbing.

So how might society address these problems? It is clear that the Constitution offers little or no protection for someone who is arrested under a properly obtained and executed warrant supported by probable cause. Nor, as a general matter, can someone who has been wronged in this way sue for civil damages. Even if he or she could sue, this would be a pitiful solution, for several reasons: the inability of money to fully compensate someone for non-financial harms; the extended time (often years) it takes to get a civil judgment; the cost to the public that ultimately pays off the judgment; and the inability of some potential plaintiffs to obtain attorneys who will take their cases on a contingent-fee basis.

I have a twofold statutory suggestion. The practice of arresting someone for an alleged violation of the law like jaywalking is brutal and abhorrent and unnecessary. Likewise, the practice of arresting and jailing someone for something as minor as an unpaid traffic ticket is brutal and abhorrent and unnecessary. Yet the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, poses no impediment to the arrest of someone for an alleged civil violation like littering or an alleged traffic infraction or an actually unpaid fine. Nor does the Constitution prevent non-violent arrestees from being strip-searched and so on; see Florence and the cases it followed. A court summons, instead of an arrest, for the initial charge is a reasonable alternative to arrest. And there are other, better ways of dealing with small, unpaid fines, assuming that (unlike Mr. Florence) the person actually has not paid up. Other options include a lien on real property, garnished wages, or a late-payment penalty. The courts are not likely to compel such a change, and, thus, legislation that sets the minimum for an arrest at a level that recognizes the severity of the arrest and detention process would make for a saner society. The minimum could be a felony or an equivalent offense or a crime involving violence. Such a law would not make for a less safe society, either: treating the speeding-ticket scofflaw or jaywalker like Charles Manson does nothing to protect us from violent crime. Such a law would do a great deal to minimize the harm to someone who has been charged with a violation of law based on an error and, presumably, lower the cost of law enforcement.

Obviously, that solution would not help someone like Michael Crocker, who was accused of a violent role in a robbery. If I had more insight to the information that led to his mistaken arrest, I could make some suggestions here as well, but the Buxton cops are not saying much. Better police training, increased accountability for people who make plainly false claims to the police, better use of prosecutorial discretion, and increased access to court-appointed criminal defense all could have alleviated the problems in this case, depending on the circumstances. Any number of mechanisms could have and likely would have prevented the three suspects from being arrested for a crime committed when they evidently were in another county, and I think that prevention of injustice is far better than any post hoc remedy.