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Wrongful arrest leads to procedure review

After another case of mistaken identity, Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice says "one mistake like this is too many."

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 22, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice promised to change arrest procedures Thursday after deputies jailed an innocent man for six days on a 33-year-old warrant.

Rice said his deputies should have taken more steps to verify the identity of James Douglas Anderson before arresting him last week on a marijuana possession warrant out of Miami-Dade County.

Rice's deputies did not verify Anderson's fingerprints until one of Public Defender Bob Dillinger's investigators forced the issue on Tuesday.

"This shouldn't have happened," Rice said. "I would like to know why it took us six days to get the fingerprints. Why do we have to have some outside agency suggest we do that? I'm not happy about it."

Rice did not offer specifics but said he would try to come up with a procedure that would trigger further checks if deputies had any doubt about a suspect's identity.

Anderson's arrest on Aug. 13 is just the latest in a series of mistaken-identity arrests by Rice's office in recent years. Last year, a woman won a $50,000 settlement from Rice's office after a mistaken identity arrest.

"Here's the thing," Rice said, explaining the errors. "We arrest 30,000 people a year. But one mistake like this is too many."

Miami-Dade police sent the old warrant to Pinellas on Aug. 1 after a computer automatically brought their attention to the old case.

Miami-Dade police spokesman Joey Giordano said the process is highly automated. No matter how old or minor the warrant, only a judge can erase it, he said.

"Just because it's 33 years old doesn't mean we don't have probable cause" for an arrest, Giordano said.

A computer check by Miami-Dade police revealed a James Anderson living in Pinellas.

Miami-Dade asked Rice's deputies to arrest Anderson, if he was the right man, Miami-Dade police say. They provided Anderson's address.

The warrant listed a man with the same first and last name as Anderson, in addition to an identical birthday.

Deputies arrested Anderson at the St. Petersburg nursing home where he works as a bus driver and assistant program director.

Deputies assumed the differing middle name was an alias, the Sheriff's Office said, and booked Anderson, despite his claims of innocence.

When he was booked, deputies never requested fingerprints from Miami-Dade to match them with Anderson.

Anderson sat in maximum security awaiting extradition to South Florida for six days.

On Tuesday, a friend of Anderson's called Bill Braun, an investigator with Public Defender Bob Dillinger's office, and asked for help.

Braun said he called the arresting deputy and asked her to verify the prints. He said she refused.

"She said she didn't have to do that," Braun said. "She said, "It's not my job.' "

Braun took matters into his own hands. He called Miami-Dade police, who agreed to fax the suspect's prints to the Pinellas Sheriff's Office.

Anderson was quickly freed.

Giordano said no blame for the arrest rests with Miami-Dade. He said Pinellas should have verified the identity, especially on an old warrant.

"We teach our rookies that their first day," he said.

Giordano said his department even sent Pinellas a picture of the real suspect, which doesn't look at all like Anderson. Pinellas said it never got the picture.

Anderson, meanwhile, said he still wonders if he can walk the streets without fear of arrest.

"There are serious crimes out there, why all the fuss about a 33-year-old marijuana charge?" he said. "I don't get it."

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