Rene Stutzman at the Orlando Sentinel reports on the wrongful arrest and imprisonment of an Orlando-area woman, Kimberly Shields, resulting from identity theft by a local drug addict and grifter with similar physical features. This is Ms. Stutzman's account:
"Kimberly Shields, a 23-year-old manicurist from Winter Park, was in tears. She was locked up in the Seminole County Jail, strip searched, deloused, and she had no business being there. A small-time thief with a cocaine addiction had stolen her identity, stolen a car, then confused authorities in Charlotte County, who issued an arrest warrant that landed Shields in jail in Sanford in 2002.
She kept telling jailers they had the wrong person. They checked, found a photo of the real thief, acknowledged that she was the wrong person but still held her for several more hours. How much longer is in dispute. It was at least an additional 24 hours, if you believe Shields, Seminole Sheriff's Office fax records[,] and phone records from Charlotte County. It was four to seven hours, if you believe the Sheriff's Office employee who discovered the error.
Shields is suing the Seminole Sheriff's Office, alleging false imprisonment and negligence. There's a pretrial conference today. The case is tentatively set for trial Sept. 27.
'I was held there when they knew it was not me, then I was strip searched and treated like one of the inmates,' said Shields.
[The Sheriff's Department] failed to follow its own policies, according her attorneys, Crystal Eiffert and Melissa Mak. When employee Kelley Brunelle discovered the jail had the wrong person, it should have called the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office to find out whether Charlotte still wanted her extradited. Defense attorney Tom Poulton said Shields is due no money. The Charlotte County Sheriff's Office is to blame, he said.
Instead of suing Seminole, Shields should thank its employees for 'doing a great job,' discovering the error and turning their findings over to a judge, who ordered her release April 25, 2002, the day after her arrest, Poulton said.
The woman Charlotte County really wanted was Shannon McGuire. She and Shields had similar features. Shields was 5-feet-6 and weighed 120 pounds. McGuire was 5-feet-4 and 135 pounds. Both women have hazel eyes. But the day Shields was jailed, McGuire was in a state prison near Ocala, serving an eight-year sentence for a string of crimes in Pinellas County.
Charlotte County issued its warrant because McGuire, while living near Port Charlotte and using Shields' identity, stole a 1987 Plymouth. She was arrested by Charlotte County deputies later that day and gave Shields' name. She was charged with auto theft, pleaded no contest and was placed on three years' probation, all while pretending to be Shields. Her probation officer knew her as Kimberly Shields. [Ms.] McGuire is now 38, and has been in and out of Florida prisons four times, according to records at the Florida Department of Corrections.
Shields, now 32, has since married — her last name is now Hesketh — and she has two young children. She has never met McGuire, she said. She doesn't know how McGuire got her name. Identity theft can do a great deal more damage than wreck your credit, she said.
'Jail is not fun. I'd hate for anyone to have to go there, especially if you know you're innocent,' Shields said.
Whether Shields was knowingly held overnight is irrelevant, Poulton argued. Only a judge can release someone named in a warrant, he said, and the Sheriff's Office put the facts in front of a judge quickly enough, just before 1:30 p.m. the next day.
But in July, in an unrelated case, when it wanted an inmate freed, its lawyer moved swiftly, put paperwork in front of a judge that same day, and the teenager was released. At midmorning, a judge had sentenced a 16-year-old boy to adult jail — something that's illegal. When the Sheriff's Office general counsel found out, she quickly drafted a two-page motion, pointing out the error, got a judge to sign an order, and the boy was set free.
Shields also contends that she should have been set free as soon as Seminole County Judge Carmine Bravo ordered her release around 2 p.m. She wasn't. She was handcuffed, led from the courtroom and held for another three to 3 1/2 hours. Poulton said it takes several hours for jail employees to run through all their checks and process out an inmate. Shields, he said, was treated no differently than anyone else."
Occasionally in my career I've heard really tin-eared claims from attorneys advocating on behalf of this or that position. This is one of those situations. I want this Sheriff's lawyer to stand up in front of a jury and argue that the Sheriff's department "did a great job," and Miss Shields should be grateful. Then I want to see how much money the jury gives Miss Shields.
Isn't one of the "unalienable rights" in this country, "liberty?" Please explain to a jury how a Sheriff's department that has wrongfully arrested you, strip searched, deloused, and incarcerated you--did a great job?
UPDATE: The Orlando Sentinel is reporting that a local jury awarded Miss Shields $100,000 ($75,000 for hte false arrest and imprisonment; $25,000 for the strip search) following a trial. The plaintiff burst into tears of joy as the verdict was announced.