Are Cops Liable For Arresting Wrong Man When They Should Have Known Better?

Illustration by Bill Hunt

Orange County’s Jason Karten wanted to board an LAX flight in July 2017 to go work as a licensed scuba instructor 8,600 miles away in Bali, but an outrageous bureaucratic snafu instead stole his freedom.

Though Karten protested they had the wrong man, police arrested him for an outstanding criminal warrant because, well, it contained his name.

Inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana, Karten is now suing the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles Airport Police for wrongful imprisonment and false arrest. According to Donald W. Cook, Karten’s attorney, government officials failed to use “common sense” when confronted with at least four powerful facts that should have vouched for his 41-year-old client’s credibility:

• Karten does not look like the mug shot of the wanted man, Michael Sammut;

• Karten and Sammut do not share fingerprints;

• Law-enforcement databases contained records that Sammut tried to use Karten’s identity two months earlier with LAPD during a narcotics arrest after the victim reported his wallet stolen;

• LA authorities then made the boneheaded move of officially styling the resulting case against Sammut as People v. Jason Benjamin Karten a.k.a. Michael Sammut even though Karten had nothing to do with the drug arrest, Sammut or the subsequently issued warrant.

“[Karten] was telling everyone who would listen there was a mistake, the warrant could not be his [because] his identity had been stolen,” Cook advised U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford. “His complaints were ignored. . . . Airport authorities, including LAX Police personnel, quickly learned [my client] was not the Sammut warrant’s intended subject because, among other reasons, officials saw that he did not appear to match the recent booking photograph of suspect Sammut.”

Nonetheless, cops separated Karten from his wife, made him miss his overseas flight, handcuffed him, drove him 5 miles to the LAPD’s Pacific Division jail and locked him up for hours until he posted $800 in bail.

Three weeks later, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge considered the situation and exonerated Karten, who worked in 2005’s Deepwater starring Lucas Black.

“Plaintiff is informed and believes it is a long-standing practice of LAPD and LAX Police personnel to ignore persons’ complaints [when] they are being held on warrants meant for another,” stated Cook, who asserts it is bad policy to accept an officer’s claim that he’s arrested the right person “even when that claim is patently untrue, as shown by the warrant subject’s [personal] identifiers.”

In August, a privately retained lawyer for the government defendants argued that the lawsuit is meritless. “Plaintiff was arrested pursuant to a valid arrest warrant, which described his full name and birthdate,” said attorney Erin E. Uyeshima. “Under the circumstances of a matching name, birthdate and similar physical descriptors, [airport police] officers did not unlawfully arrest or detain [Karten] as a matter of law. . . . The officers had a reasonable, good faith belief that plaintiff was the warrant suspect and, as such, plaintiff’s arrest was lawful.”

Uyeshima added that because “claims of innocence are common in jails, a jailor need not independently investigate all uncorroborated claims of innocence if the suspect will soon have the opportunity to assert his claims in front of a judge.”

Cook responded to the argument by noting the officers “ignored that Karten was not the person shown in the Sammut booking photograph, a booking photograph the officials actually had and knew depicted the warrant’s subject.”

Karten’s predicament isn’t novel.

In 2016, for example, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Garcia v. County of Riverside and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department that police had ignored a duty to investigate the validity of their arrest when they noticed that the wrongly arrested person was 9 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than the actual subject of the warrant. “No person deserves to be incarcerated without good reason,” the bipartisan panel noted.

The judges also observed that mistaken-identity incarcerations can violate the constitution’s due-process clause if “the circumstances indicated to the [officers] that further identification was warranted or [they] denied the plaintiff access to the courts for an extended period of time.”

Then-Sheriff Lee Baca demanded immunity from responsibility in Garcia and said he had no duty to investigate, even though Garcia, who was represented by Cook, didn’t share the actual target’s height, weight, middle name or address.

“[But] 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,” the judges declared. “The 9-inch difference in height, even if standing alone, is so inexplicable except by misidentification that the [LA] booking officers clearly had a duty to make readily available inquiries.”

Back in Orange County, a mid-2019 trial for Karten’s complaint is expected unless the parties reach a settlement.

R. Scott Moxley’s award-winning investigative journalism has touched nerves for two decades. An angry congressman threatened to break Moxley’s knee caps. A dirty sheriff promised his critical reporting was irrelevant and then landed in prison. The U.S. House of Representatives debated his work. Federal prosecutors credited his stories for the arrest of a doctor who sold fake medicine to dying patients. Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.

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