SBSD Facing Liability Over Its 4 Mistaken ID Arrests Of Same Man

“Significant” differences have manifested among the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, top county officials, the county’s stable of in-house attorneys known as the office of county counsel and an outside law firm brought in to salvage the county’s position after early going in what many considered to be the relatively minor case of false arrest and civil rights violations brought against it by Jimmie Williams III has exposed the county to potential liability in the millions of dollars.
At the root of the problem is the sheriff’s department’s unwillingness to acknowledge it made a series of errors when its officers arrested Williams four times in repeated cases of mistaken identity, which was compounded by its refusal to make a simple notation in its computer system that would have obviated such errors in the future.
At the core of the issue is that Jimmie Williams III, 36, bears a name very similar to Jimmie Antonio Williams Jr. as well as sharing with him the same birth date. Williams Jr has an extensive criminal record. Williams III’s only criminal history consists of his having been repeatedly misidentified as Williams Jr. by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
On four occasions, in 2006, 2009, in June 2018 and most recently in July 2018, Williams III of Victorville, who has no criminal convictions whatsoever, has been arrested by the sheriff’s department when it failed to distinguish between him and Williams Jr., with whom Williams III has no familial relation.
The July 2018 arrest came about as the consequence of what the county’s attorneys have now been forced to acknowledge was the sheriff’s department’s pretextual encounter with Williams III in order to make his arrest after the deputies involved failed to verify that Williams III was actually Williams Jr., for whom they had a valid arrest warrant.
The sheriff’s department’s, the county’s and the individual officers’ legal position has been compromised by the officers having somehow failed to keep their stories straight as to why the last encounter with Williams III came about. According to the sheriff’s department, deputies came to Williams III’s residence in June 2018 in response to a silent alarm. When they confronted Williams III, he complied with a request that he show them identification, and they arrested him on a warrant for Williams Jr., despite Williams III explaining to them the confusion over his and Williams Jr.’s identities. Williams III was released shortly thereafter, upon the department having been provided with clear documentation that Williams III was not Williams Jr.
Less than a month later, another deputy, apparently functioning on the belief that Williams III was Williams Jr. and not having taken proper stock of the mistake his colleagues had made the previous month, went to Williams III’s home, claiming he was there to speak to Williams with regard to a child protective services matter relating to his son. At some point in his interaction with Williams III, the deputy informed Williams III he was actually there to arrest him on a felony warrant.
The entirety of that encounter was video-recorded by Williams’ doorbell camera, which shows that despite Williams again seeking to inform yet another member of the sheriff’s department of the mistake the department was making for the fourth time, the deputy escalated the matter to a physical confrontation, wrestling Williams III to the ground and then arresting him on felony obstruction and resisting arrest charges.
The county board of supervisors, after learning of the claim and lawsuit brought against it by Williams III and his attorney, Jonathan Ray Russell, previously resisted entering into a settlement, setting the matter on a course for trial.
Ultimately, the office of San Bernardino County Counsel, led by County Counsel Michelle Blakemore, opted to bring in the law firm of Lawrence Beach Allen & Choi, which specializes in defending public entities and police departments in wrongful death, wrongful prosecution, malicious prosecution and wrongful arrest lawsuits.
Over the last year, however, there have been a number of developments in the case that have resulted in the matter devolving to the point where the relationship between the county and Lawrence Beach Allen & Choi has been poisoned, information the sheriff’s department never wanted revealed is about to be disclosed, and Williams III is about to walk away with a multi-million payday.
At the heart of the case is what has been described as an “almost perversely obstinate” refusal on the part of the sheriff’s department to utilize its long-extant and vaunted informational system to flag either or both the entries it has with regard to Williams III and Williams Jr. in such a way as to prevent any confusion between the two.
Officially titled the “Central Name Index,” the sheriff’s department’s database includes entries on all individuals with whom the department has had any previous contact, either physically in person or by extension through its investigative or enforcement work. Quite often wrongfully referenced by a significant number of deputies with the department as the “Criminal Name Index,” it contains the names, addresses, available contact information, arrests, convictions, information gleaned from arrest or investigative reports, field encounter cards, interview and interrogations notes and San Bernardino County Superior Court records, along with arrest and conviction data extrapolated from the State of California’s Criminal Identification and Information Services Bureau’s data base, the JDIC [the County of Los Angeles Justice Data Interface Controller] data system, and the NCIC [the National Crime Information Center] data base. The Central Name Index can be accessed from computers at all of the department’s stations and from the mobile unit computers contained within patrol cars. For reasons that are not clear, the department failed to put into its Central Name Index information to distinguish Williams III from Williams Jr., despite the system being designed to accommodate any and all information relating to a subject available deemed to be of use to a law enforcement officer who accesses the data base for any type of operational activity.
After each of Williams III’s arrests, when it was established or reestablished that Williams III was not the individual the arresting deputies assumed him to be, department officials insisted that the arresting deputies had done nothing wrong and had acted appropriately and without malice.
If, indeed, San Bernardino County can succeed in propounding that construction of events in defending the case with regard to the first three of Williams III’s arrests, it will have a far more difficult go of it when the matter goes to trial with regard to the July 2018 arrest. On that occasion, the arresting officer was apparently acting on information that came to the department as a consequence of the encounter the department had when it arrested Williams III the previous month, after which William III’s actual identity was made clear to at least some members of the department. The arresting deputy also utilized an elaborate fabrication relating to a child protective services issue to lure Williams III into position for what is now recognized by the county’s lawyers at all levels – both in-house and outside legal representatives – as a false arrest. Despite that recognition among competent legal authorities, the department is persisting in maintaining that the arrest was justified. The issue of the department’s and it’s officers claims in this regard is beset with complication for the county. Two of the Lawrence Beach Allen & Choi attorneys representing the county in the Williams III matter, Natalie Price and Aamir Raza, have reached the conclusion that at least one of the deputies has made and continues to make demonstrably false assertions with regard to the facts of the case, which in turn resulted in Lawrence Beach Allen & Choi, relying upon those prevarications, having made false representations to the court. This has created a crisis by which Lawrence Beach Allen & Choi wants to bail on the case, a circumstance that is not likely to be overcome unless the county is willing to devote a considerably greater amount of money – well in excess of $500,000 – in legal fees to be paid to the firm in excess of what it would otherwise pay to keep it in place.
Moreover, the case, if it goes to trial, will very likely result in intense illumination being shed on the sheriff’s department’s Central Name Index, in particular an aspect of that data base which allows the department to maintain two sets of data with regard to the subjects contained within it, one that is under normal circumstances considered confidential but will be released upon a court order or in accordance with agency-to-agency privilege and a second set of entries made with regard to the index’s subjects that are considered off limits to anyone outside of the department, including the courts,  which is double secured by password protection and a secret access protocol. It is feared that if Williams III’s lawyer explores the sheriff’s department’s rationale for refusing to enter identifying distinctions between Williams III and Williams Jr. into the Central Name Index, that line of inquiry will lead to the disclosure of the department’s secret files, which the defense is seeking to head off by in limine motions to exclude those files as evidence in the case. Whatever the court’s ruling with regard to the in limine motions, however, the existence of the department’s sub rosa files will be established when the means by which the distinguishing identifying information pertaining to Williams III and Williams Jr. could have been entered into the department files is presented during the course of the trial.
Relatively early in the litigation between Williams III and the county, the county had the opportunity to bring the matter to a close by agreeing to take steps to ensure that the sheriff’s department would no longer blur the distinction between Williams III and Williams Jr. and confer a settlement of $75,000 on Williams III. At present, the county is into Lawrence Beach Allen & Choi for well over a half of a million dollars with the prospect of that amount doubling as an effort toward a settlement is made. If no settlement is reached, Lawrence Beach Allen & Choi’s legal fees will zoom to somewhere approaching $2 million, to cover the cost of the matter going to trial. It appears that Williams III and his lawyer, Jonathan Russell, can now expect a settlement in the low seven figures for agreeing to keep the case from going to trial in Central District U.S. Federal Court before Judge Stephen V. Wilson. If the effort at reaching a settlement fails, the county will be in the position of rolling the dice when the matter is heard by a jury before Judge Wilson.
Next week, County Counsel Michelle Blakemore is scheduled to brief the board of supervisors on the matter during a closed session from which the public is to be excluded. Blakemore’s presentation is to include a proposal that the supervisors consider signing off on a settlement prior to trial. The Sentinel was told that the lone hitch in making that settlement at this point is the board of supervisors’ collective reluctance to take action that will embarrass Sheriff John McMahon, who has continued to support his deputies and is unwilling to issue a public apology to Williams III, or in any way acknowledge that Williams III was wrongfully arrested.
-Mark Gutglueck

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