Jail Arrest Mistake


$625,000 awarded in arrest mistake 
By Jerry Bier
The Fresno Bee
Published 11/18/03 05:10:14

Maria Munoz, a small woman with a weak heart, was awarded $625,000 by a federal jury Monday for the 14 hours she spent in custody after being arrested by Fresno County sheriff's deputies in a case of mistaken identity.
Munoz, who had wept openly on the witness stand while recalling her arrest, was not present when the verdicts in her favor were read, but arrived at the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Fresno shortly after they were announced.

Though she speaks little English, she said through her lawyer Arturo Gonzalez that if the trauma of her two-week trial prevents one woman from having to go through what she had to, it's worth it.

"She feels like someone listened to her, and she feels she got justice," Gonzalez added.

Munoz was arrested early Sept. 20, 2002, at her Firebaugh home by sheriff's deputies searching for a woman wanted on suspicion of drug violations and of illegally receiving Social Security benefits. Munoz had never been in trouble with the law.

Despite her protests, deputies concluded she was the woman -- Maria Herrera -- they were looking for, cuffed Munoz's hands behind her back and eventually took her to jail in Fresno. There, she was forced to undergo a strip search and was denied her medications until her release 14 hours later, which was granted because of jail crowding.

The $625,000 is believed to be among the largest individual damage amounts awarded by a federal jury for a case involving an illegal strip search, Gonzalez said.

"I think it is very important to send a message to all law enforcement agencies in all of our communities that if you are going to send people out to make an arrest, it's very important that they make sure they know who they are arresting -- especially if you are dealing with someone like this," Gonzalez told reporters, gesturing to the tiny, 59-year-old Munoz standing next to him.

The whole case was "much ado about nothing," Gonzalez said, adding that deputies were working off an 11-year-old warrant.

"We were able to find the real Maria Herrera," Gonzalez said, "and she still lives in Fresno. I found her easy. When she learned they were looking for her, she went to court and the judge dismissed the case."

The wanted Herrera, whose maiden name was Maria Munoz, was listed as 5 feet 6 inches and 195 pounds in the warrant, 5 inches taller and more than 50 pounds heavier than the woman who was arrested.

The only apparent reason Munoz's Firebaugh address was in the county's computer system was because she and her husband, Angel, reported a vehicle burglary in 1994 when tools were stolen from his truck while they were in church.

The case of misidentification was cleared up through fingerprint checks nearly four weeks after Munoz's arrest, after Gonzalez sent a letter to the sheriff's office demanding some action.

Gonzalez had never put an amount on the damages Munoz was seeking, but asked jurors to award what they believed would be fair and to send a message to Fresno County to change its policies.

The jury concluded that Munoz's constitutional rights had been violated, that she was unlawfully arrested and that the Sheriff's Department had failed to properly train its employees.

In one part of the verdict that was in the county's favor, the jurors decided that deputies and correctional officers had no reason to know that Munoz, who complained of chest pains and spent two days in the hospital following her arrest, was in need of immediate medical attention.

Sheriff's deputies who testified at the trial had defended their arrest of Munoz and said no policies had changed because of the wrongful arrest.

Lawyers James Weakley and James Arendt, representing the county, had little to say after the verdicts were read before U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger.

"Obviously, we're disappointed in the verdict," Weakley said. "We'll talk to our client and evaluate the verdict and see whether to appeal or how they want to handle it."

No settlement offers were made in the case before it went before the jury.

Robert Chan, another of Munoz's lawyers, said it was a "classic" Fresno case.

"If you're looking at a liability and have a bad case, do you stand back and offer nothing?" Chan asked.

Gonzalez and Chan have won a series of cases against law enforcement agencies in the Valley, including a $1.45 million verdict in 1993 for four women who were subjected to an unlawful strip search after attending a meeting of the Dinuba school board.

In addition to the $625,000 award to Munoz, Gonzalez and Chan also will file a motion with the court to be awarded costs and attorneys' fees in connection with the case, and that amount probably will total several hundred thousand dollars.

Jurors said there was little difficulty deciding in favor of Munoz, whose doctor says she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of her arrest.

Several of the five men and three women on the civil jury hugged Munoz after she arrived at the courthouse, and two stayed to watch an afternoon news conference called by Gonzalez.

"It was a mystery to us why it ever came to trial," said juror Marvin Rodgers of Merced. "It shouldn't have ever come to court."

Another juror, Ron Washburn of Fresno, said that "in this day and age, with fingerprints, there is no reason that it didn't get settled sooner."

Angel Munoz grew teary-eyed when he spoke of having to leave his wife alone when he goes to his farm-labor job each day.

She is frightened and still worries about a knock on the door, said Angel Munoz, whose words were interpreted by Gonzalez.

The reporter can be reached at  jbier@fresnobee.com  or 441-6484.


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