Man wrongfully arrested, jailed for 12 days in Denver nears $88,530 settlement with city

Man dropped his pants to show he has no tattoo

DENVER - After being wrongfully arrested by Denver police and spending 12 days in jail, a desperate Christian Robinson was willing to do just about anything to prove his innocence.

Ultimately, he dropped his pants in court to show authorities he didn't have the real crook's telltale Scooby-Doo tattoo on the back of his thigh.

Now, Denver city attorneys have tentatively agreed to pay $88,530 to Robinson who was mistakenly arrested after a criminal stole his identity and a sheriff's clerk mistakenly changed a warrant.

The proposed settlement of Robinson's federal lawsuit against Denver requires approval by the City Council. A vote on the issue has not been scheduled. Robinson's attorney, Raymond K. Bryant of the Civil Rights Litigation Group, confirmed the settlement amount.

Robinson's ordeal began in 2010 when the chef applied for his dream job at a big Las Vegas hotel. He made it through the interviews, but the hotel's background check found Robinson had an active arrest warrant for felony drug distribution in his home state of Colorado.

His reaction? "As you can imagine, shocked," Robinson told 7NEWS.

Anxious to untangle what he suspected was a case of mistaken identity, Robinson caught a red-eye flight to Denver. He went straight to the Denver Police Department in the morning and told a front-desk officer named Jean Keita there was a mix-up about him being named in an arrest warrant. He asked police to compare his fingerprints and other biographical information to prove he wasn't the man wanted by police.

Things quickly spiraled out of control.

During a pre-trial deposition, Robinson testified that Keita and another officer "repeatedly looked back and forth at Robinson [and] whispered to each other their doubt that Robinson looked like the person they believed should be arrested," according to the lawsuit.

Ultimately, the officers decided to arrest Robinson, saying they would "just let the system sort it out," a judge wrote in court papers.

"At that point, it was chaos for me. It was embarrassing," Robinson recalled. "Relationships were on the line."

He kept telling police and deputies who took him to jail that they had the wrong guy, according to Robinson's attorney.

"One of the officers pulled me aside and he even said, 'Why don't you bond out because it's probably not you,'" Robinson said. "They didn't make it available for me to prove my innocence."

After a long 12 days, Robinson finally appeared in Denver state court.

"When I got to the courtroom I was demoralized. I was crushed," he said.

He again pleaded -- this time to a prosecutor -- that they had the wrong man. The prosecutor reviewed the case file, which showed Cagle had several tattoos, including a huge Scooby-Doo tattoo on the back of his thigh.

"I stood up and what saved my butt that day was my butt. And I dropped my pants, and they looked for the Scooby-Doo tattoo, and it was not there," Robinson said.

The judge released Robinson.

Eventually, Colorado Bureau of Investigation officials unraveled the identity mix-up and issued a letter declaring the "factual innocence" of Robinson. The real suspect, Cagle, pleaded guilty to the drug charge.

But the damage to Robinson's life had been done.

He lost his job and his application for the new job was rejected.


-- 'They treated him like a criminal' --

"He went in and tried to do the right thing. And they treated him like a criminal who should be thrown in jail, even though he was overtly saying to them, 'I'm not the right person,'" Robinson's attorney, Raymond K. Bryant, said.

What Robinson didn't know was that a man named Michael Cagle had been arrested by Denver police the previous year on the drug charges. Cagle told police his name was "Christian Robinson" and gave them a state identification card bearing Robinson's name, birth date and physical description, court records state. Robinson had lost his ID card years earlier.

"I did not know that somebody had used my ID. I didn't know anything, really," Robinson said.

His attorney says all of this could have been avoided if anyone had simply compared Robinson to the real suspect. Bryant said Michael Cagle had a different eye color, build, tattoos and facial features. He was also nine years older than Robinson.

At the time of his arrest, the Denver Police Department's front desk had a computer where an officer could call up suspects' arrest photos on a program called "Webmug."

Officer Keita did look up Cagle's mugshot -- but not until after the lawsuit was filed. 

In a deposition, "Keita testified it was apparent from the Webmug shot of Cagle that he looked nothing like Robinson." Likewise, Denver Sheriff Department Major Mike Horner also testified that a comparison of the two men's mugshots would have revealed an "identity problem."

These mistakes were compounded by a deeper flaw, a lack of safeguards in the sheriff department's electronic arrest warrant system.

Robinson was entangled in the case after Cagle didn't show up in court and an arrest warrant was issued.

The original arrest warrant contained Cagle's name as the wanted man, but it also had Christian Robinson's name and birth date as Cagle's alias, court records state.


-- Clerk switched key State ID number in warrant --

Somehow, the electronic warrant transmitted by the court to the sheriff's department only contained Robinson's name. But it also had a key identifying number for Cagle, the State Identification Number or "SID," court records state.  

A sheriff's department clerk responsible for preparing -- or "packing" -- a suspect's unique identifying information in the warrant, noticed the SID number was connected to Cagle, not Christian Robinson. So she removed Cagle's SID number from the warrant and replaced it with Robinson's SID number, which she had looked up in NCIC, the National Crime Information Center database. Robinson had an SID number from an arrest years earlier.

The SID number change was a critical mistake.

The clerk then distributed the warrant -- which now included Robinson's name, birth date, social security number, height and weight -- to law enforcement via NCIC.

"It is known to Denver that the most important piece of identification information in a warrant is the SID number. That number allows law enforcement personnel to correctly connect fingerprint, mugshot and other key identifying information to the 'body' seized," U.S. District Judge Wiley Y. Daniel wrote in a court order. "Both [the clerk] and Denver know that an incorrect adjustment to a warrant during the 'packing' process could result in fundamental changes to the warrant, including a change in whom the warrant had been issued for."


-- Family, friends didn't believe him-- 

"The biggest heartbreak," said his attorney, was the reaction of Robinson's family and friends to the arrest.

"When he was incarcerated for 12 days…everybody believed he must have done something wrong. So many members of his family and his friends, his girlfriend, they just didn't believe him. So when he got out of jail, he really had nowhere to go," Bryant said.

The issue of wrongful arrest and detention has been a long-festering problem in Denver law enforcement.

In 2008, the sheriff's department instituted a Prisoner Identity-in-Question procedure -- or PIQ. When a suspect claims he or she has been mistakenly arrested, jail deputies are required to alert a supervisor, who starts an identity confirmation investigation.

In 2010, there were 99 such complaints logged. A sheriff's supervisor testified in the Robinson case that 60 percent of PIQ reviews find the wrong person was being held.

Judge Daniel wrote that it's undisputed that the deputies violated departmental policy by not initiating the PIQ procedure when Robinson said his arrest was a terrible mix-up. But the judge said this didn't rise to a violation of the man's constitutional rights.

Ultimately, Daniel removed Officer Keita and three deputies as defendants in the lawsuit, saying they were entitled to qualified immunity.

In essence, the judge ruled that, when they made the arrest, Keita and the deputies were reasonably enforcing what appeared to be a valid warrant.

But the judge refused Denver's request to dismiss the case against the city.


-- Judge: City failed to train warrant clerks --

"I find that a violation of federal rights was a highly predictable or plainly obvious consequence of Denver’s failure to train and inaction, as Denver failed to train [sheriff's department] packing clerks in specific skills needed to handle recurring situations where conflicting information was received in a warrant," the judge wrote. "This presents an obvious potential for constitutional violations as a warrant could be changed at the discretion of a packing clerk and without any double-checks in a manner that results in the wrong person being arrested and detained."

As a result of the Robinson arrest fiasco, the sheriff's department changed its policy to prohibit employees from changing the State Identification Number on warrants.

The accusations in the Robinson case echo what the ACLU has been saying about its five-year crusade to get Denver law enforcement agencies to strengthen procedures to prevent mistaken ID arrests.

In early December, the American Civil Liberties Union announced that it had won $569,250 in settlements to compensate six clients who were victims of mistaken identity arrests by Denver law enforcement. The ACLU said it had documented more than 500 incidents in a seven-year period in which people were wrongly arrested by Denver police and imprisoned in the city's jails.

In a statement on its recent lawsuit settlement, the ACLU said, "The mistaken ID arrests were a result of a widespread policy and practice of tolerating egregious mistakes, where a warrant for one person resulted in a different person being arrested."

In each of its clients cases, the ACLU said, "Denver police deliberately ignored facts that demonstrated that they were arresting or causing the arrest of the wrong person and that Denver Sheriff Department deputies refused to investigate obvious red flags and repeated complaints from plaintiffs and their family that they were locking up the wrong person."

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