Mario A. Garcia was booked into a Los Angeles County jail after law enforcement mistook him for a man with an identical birth date and the same first and last names. Garcia protested that deputies had the wrong man: The other Garcia, wanted on a warrant, was 9 inches shorter, 40 pounds lighter and had a different middle name.
But it wasn't until three days after the arrest that a judge rectified the mistake and released Garcia.
In a unanimous decision Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals cleared the way for Garcia to sue Los Angeles County and the Sheriff's Department.
"Even a cursory comparison of Garcia to the warrant subject should have led officers to question whether the person described in the warrant was Garcia," Judge Ronald M. Gould wrote for the court. "Information that raised questions about Garcia's identity should have prompted the LASD to investigate more deliberately."
A Times investigation in 2011 found nearly 1,500 people in the prior five years had been wrongfully imprisoned in the L.A. County jail system because of mistaken identity. As a result of the report, the Sheriff's Department created a task force to remedy the problem. Some reforms followed.
But they did not help Garcia, a gardener who lives in Riverside. Riverside police arrested Garcia on suspicion of driving under the influence about 2 a.m. on Nov. 26, 2012. Under normal circumstances, Garcia would have been released that day, his lawyer said.
But the Riverside County jail ran his name and discovered a felony warrant for another Garcia issued in Los Angeles in 1994. The description of the man wanted in connection to selling drugs did not match the DUI suspect, but it didn't matter, according to the suit. Riverside contacted the L.A. County Sheriff's Department about the inmate.
At that point, according to Garcia's lawsuit, L.A. County authorities should have forwarded information on the other man's fingerprints and middle name, which would have excluded Garcia.
"Whether LASD had to investigate in the face of plaintiff's protests and complaints that he wasn't the person described in the outstanding warrant is an important question," wrote Gould, a Clinton appointee. "No person deserves to be incarcerated without good reason."
The court said Garcia could sue the county on the basis that it had violated his rights to due process.
"The booking officers clearly had a duty to make readily available inquiries," Gould wrote. "And those further inquiries would have shown more material differences, such as different arrest record, middle initial and home address."
Donald W. Cook, Garcia's lawyer, said the sheriff's task force did not result in strong reforms. He said the department continues to rely on arresting police agencies to verify identities.
"Some cop makes what could be a very tentative decision this is the bad guy, and no one down the line wants to change it," Cook said. "They leave it for a court to do. They don't want to take responsibility for cutting somebody loose. Let the judge take the heat."
Cook said he continues to get cases of people locked up based on mistaken identity.
"It is outrageous, especially when you look at how absurdly easy it was to rule Garcia out," Cook said.
The attorney representing L.A. County in the case could not be reached for comment. A sheriff's spokesman declined to comment.