Time for a Name Change?

by | March 29, 2023

Sosa v. Martin County, Florida, 2023 WL 1776253 (11th Cir. 2023)

One can find a deceased David Sosa, an aspiring high school football player named David Sosa, a bank executive in Miami named David Sosa, a philosopher who identifies as David Sosa, David Sosa the preacher, David Sosa the rhythm and blues artist, and even David Sosa the newspaper reporter. Just about one in 8,000 persons in the United States carry the Sosa surname, though I don’t know how many David Sosas are among them. There is also a very old arrest warrant from Harris County, Texas, for one David Sosa. And in Martin County, Florida, there is a David Sosa who is tired of being arrested for the Texas guy by the same name. But should the officers who arrest him and jail him be responsible for their mistaken identifications?

In November 2014, David Sosa was stopped for a traffic violation by a Martin County Sheriff’s deputy. The deputy found an outstanding Harris County, Texas, warrant from 1992 for a different David Sosa with a different date of birth and Social Security number, tattoos (the David Sosa stopped by the deputy had none), a forty-pound difference in stated weight, and other identification discrepancies. The deputy arrested Sosa and booked him into jail. Sosa was fingerprinted, quickly proven to be the wrong David Sosa and released. The Sheriff’s Office made no report and created no documentation that might prevent a future, repeated wrongful arrest.

This case may be a reminder for officers to dig a little when a suspect makes a claim of mistaken identity.

In 2018, the same “unwanted” David Sosa was arrested during a traffic stop for the same Texas warrant, now three decades old. Sosa explained he’d been through this process before. He told every jail officer he encountered about the mistake, but no one acted on his claims. When he was presented to the judge in a video arraignment and tried to explain his mistaken identity, jailers warned him not to speak to the judge. Three days later, someone checked his fingerprints and found he was not the wanted David Sosa. Again, the sheriff’s staff did not create a file or other documentation to prevent Sosa from being re-arrested on the same warrant.

Sosa sued, hoping to avoid a third wrongful arrest. The appellate court held there was no violation of Sosa’s due process rights because the arrest warrant is valid (though admittedly for a different David Sosa) and his detention lasted only three days. The deputies who arrested him, jailed him and disbelieved him were entitled to qualified immunity because the court held their mistakes were reasonable. The Sheriff was not liable for a policy or training claim because Sosa could not show a pattern or policy of illegal arrests other than his own.

Sosa lost. The Sheriff was not ordered to take remedial action to prevent more wrongful arrests and the deputies did not have to pay money damages. But did anyone win? (Other than the defense lawyers who were surely paid, of course.) What steps could be taken to mitigate a third mistaken-identity arrest? This case may be a reminder for officers to dig a little when a suspect makes a claim of mistaken identity. For Mr. Sosa, it may be an invitation to change his name or stop driving on the roads in Martin County.

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

More Posts
Share this post:

The Briefing – Your source for the latest blog articles, leadership resources and more