ST. LOUIS • Cedric Wright never should have been arrested on charges intended for Corey Leonard. Attorneys on both sides of a suit for damages — and a federal judge — agreed on that much Wednesday.
But it was not as certain whether Wright is entitled to compensation for more than eight weeks he spent in St. Louis jail on another man’s charges.
Nobody disputes that Wright was wrongly arrested on three of Leonard’s cases, when Wright also was picked up for stealing beer and a bag of chips.
A judge realized the mistake when Wright went to court on one of Leonard’s cases in August 2011, and the judge ordered him released. But because of what a city lawyer called “bad luck” and Wright’s failure to speak up, he remained in jail for 58 days on the two other cases.
“Cedric never advocated for himself, and it’s unfortunate,” said city counselor Daniel Emerson, a lawyer for the sheriff’s department, corrections and officials. They are seeking to have Wright’s civil rights claim dismissed. “When Cedric chose to suffer in silence, there’s nothing corrections could have done.”
A lawyer from the attorney general’s office is separately representing the police department, at the time a state entity.
The argument had U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig asking in court whether a system can be so “screwed up” that it cannot be held liable, because there are no singular points of error.
“What responsibility do the people who put that information into the system have to correct it?” she asked.
Whatever she ultimately decides will have broader implications. Wright’s attorneys, Jim Hacking and Jennifer Shoulberg, claim in court filings that 82 people spent a combined total of 1,397 days in jail from 2007 through mid-2013 because of mistaken arrests.
They initially failed to get a class action certified in Wright’s case but are planning to try again using information they have since gathered.
A Post-Dispatch investigation published in October showed that about 100 men and women had been mistakenly arrested and jailed for a total of more than 2,000 days over roughly seven years.
Those arrests represent only a sampling based on a partially filled public records request that revealed cases caught after reaching the courts.
Wright’s attorneys, doing separate research, identified nine cases not found by the newspaper. Reporters have since learned of two additional cases, and a public records request submitted to police in late November could reveal more.
Officials have disputed the newspaper’s results, calling the investigation flawed. They have refused to support their claims with documentation, but did cite one case in which the newspaper misidentified an arrestee based on official records that were in error.
NEGLIGENCE VS. INDIFFERENCE
To collect, Wright’s attorneys must demonstrate that officials were “deliberately indifferent” — not just negligent — by being aware of a pattern of mistaken arrests and not doing enough to prevent them. The suit alleges that police, the sheriff’s office and jail employees lack proper training and policies and repeatedly ignored problems.
Attorneys for those agencies argued that there was no pattern and no violation of Wright’s constitutional rights.
They said the arresting officer had probable cause for arresting Wright, because of his own theft case, and had immunity from the suit because he researched criminal histories and compared photographs and “reasonably believed” that Leonard’s warrants were for Wright.
It appeared that Leonard had used Wright’s name as an alias. Emerson, the defense lawyer, said the city’s criminal justice system “is just not designed to handle” the degree to which suspects use each others’ names.
Assistant Attorney General Karin Schute said the Board of Police Commissioners, a defendant that has since ceded control of the department to City Hall, was never given notice of a problem. She said the attorneys’ list of 82 people was based on hearsay that would never make it to trial, and contained jailings that could have been caused in a variety of ways.
But Hacking cited depositions and internal communications in which criminal justice employees did raise concerns about mistakes.
Filed as part of the suit, the material included statements from Mark Garanzini, coordinator of the police unit that processes inmates, who said that employees had lacked training for two decades and that while 15 percent of his day is spent correcting mistakes, employees making them have never been disciplined for it.
Garanzini also said that sometimes officers booked someone of uncertain identity to see if the charges “stick.”
Emerson blamed a series of mistakes, including the volume of the cases passing through the courthouse, for Wright’s stay in jail.
He said Wright should have appeared in front of a judge on Leonard’s two other cases, but the entire docket was postponed that day, something that he noted ultimately helped get a judge suspended. It was an apparent reference to Associate Circuit Judge Barbara Peebles who was disciplined for, among other things, having her clerks handle cases while she was vacationing in China in October 2011.
When Fleissig asked whether deputies should have inquired further after seeing the one case dismissed, Emerson acknowledged that it was, “perhaps,” negligence, but not criminal recklessness or deliberate indifference because they couldn’t release him from the two other cases without a judge’s order.
Wright “never said anything” back at the jail, he said, arguing that that eliminated corrections officials’ liability.
“I don’t think anybody is disputing that we have negligence here,” noted Fleissig, who did not issue an immediate ruling. “The question is, does this action rise above negligence?”
Hacking said Wright did complain to a jail staffer but was unable to provide specifics to his attorneys. He was not represented by an attorney at the time.
Deputies had a “duty to inquire” after Wright was ordered released on the one case, Hacking said, but did not.
“And there it died,” he said, “And there Cedric sat for the next 58 days.”