When is the 4th Amendment not the 4th Amendment
Apr 22, 2014
Have you ever been mistaken for being someone else? Maybe you look like a famous celebrity and everyone stops you on the street. For a long time, I have been mistaken for being Rick O'Cassic (lead singer for the 80's band The Cars). Sure, it's all fun and games and I was able to get a little mileage out of it - but I was never incarcerated because I looked like someone else - like poor Santiago Ibarra Rivera. Who is Santiago Ibarra Rivera, you ask? Well, let me tell you.
Once upon a time (in 1989), a warrant was issued for Santiago Rivera (not Santiago Ibarra Rivera but some guy named Santiago Rivera) by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. Seems Santiago Rivera was a bad person and the LA Sheriff's Department was hot to find him. The 1989 warrant described Santiago Rivera as a "Hispanic male with brown hair and brown eyes, 5’5” tall, and 180 pounds in weight".
In 2009, the San Bernardino County Sheriff pulled Santiago Ibarra Rivera over for a traffic violation. Apparently Santiago Ibarra Rivera almost matched the description to a "T" Yes, Santiago Ibarra Rivera was 5'6" tall and weighed 170 pounds - but who's to quibble about such minor details? Apparently, not the sheriff's department since Santiago Ibarra Rivera had the misfortune of having the same birthday as Santiago Rivera. So, the officer's arrested Santiago Ibarra Rivera believing that they had, in fact, arrested Santiago Rivera (despite the Santiago Ibarra Rivera's LOUD protests to the contrary). Santiago Ibarra Rivera pleaded with the police to check their records Begged them. For seven (7) months Santiago Ibarra Rivera languished in jail protesting all the way...until...someone actually did check the records and found that they had arrested the wrong guy. OOPS!
Here's where things gets interesting. Santiago Ibarra Rivera filed a 4th amendment violation action against both sheriff's departments in district court and lost. He appealed it and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court decision stating (in essence) that, "The deputies had probable cause to arrest the true subject of the warrant but mistakenly believed that Rivera (Ibarra) was that person." In English, what they're saying is because the sheriff had probable cause to arrest someone, Rivera Ibarra was just as close to what they were looking for so that was good enough to hold him for as long as they wanted (or, at least, until they got around to discovering their mistake). Thing is, the sheriff's department admitted they messed-up. They arrested the wrong guy. Court said - so what. 4th Amendment? What 4th Amendment?! We see no violation here.
Uh, excuse me? What really bothers me is that the sheriff's department(s) is Teflon. They can arrest anyone, admit they arrested the wrong guy, say OOPS and it all goes away. As long as the description is "close," they can arrest anyone with impunity. Is that scary or what?! Truly a police power gone awry and anyone with any cognitive ability should be shuddering at the thought that this is yet another yank on the U.S. Constitution. So, the guy was 10 pounds lighter and an inch shorter - good enough. We got our guy (we think) and that's as good as we can be held accountable for, right? Right?!? Yeah, didn't think so.
Bret is a Legal Research & Instructional Services Librarian at our Main Library.