It was no shock to criminal and civil rights attorney Brian Vogel when the Los Angeles Times revealed that more than 1,400 people were wrongfully incarcerated in Los Angeles County jails over the past five years.
According to Vogel, wrongful jailing has been occurring in Ventura County for the past 20 years. But he hopes the recent settlement of a federal class action he has filed against the county will bring wrongful imprisonments in the area to an end.
Charles Velasquez, the lead plaintiff in the case, was arrested locally in 2010 on warrants issued in his name by Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Counties. Though he made continual protests about the arrest being a case of mistaken identity, Velasquez spent nine days in Ventura County jail. It wasn’t until he was transferred to Van Nuys jail that Los Angeles County detectives discovered that Velasquez’s booking photo didn’t match the photo of the subject with the warrants. Nobody in the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department had bothered to check.
As it turned out, Arturo Perez Gonzalez, the boyfriend of Velasquez’s former wife, had stolen Velasquez’s identity. And it wasn’t the first time. Gonzalez was arrested in 2009 and pleaded guilty for impersonating Velasquez.
The incarceration caused Velasquez to lose his job as a forklift driver. He received a lower paying job at the same place of employment making boxes for the strawberry season, according to Vogel.
The settlement awarded Velasquez $55,000, and his attorney fees and costs incurred will be reimbursed. In addition, the settlement will provide up to $3,000 for each verified claim of a mistaken incarceration, limited by the $120,000 available to pay all claims, said attorney Alan Wisotsky, who is representing the county. Any person who was wrongfully incarcerated during the period of Dec. 30, 2008, to Sept. 20, 2011, may qualify as a class member, if a claim is filed by April 26.
Vogel said he expects the settlement to include 20 to 50 class members.
During his time with the Ventura County Public Defender’s Office, Vogel arraigned a number of “misidentified innocents,” and was dismayed that taxpayer money was being used to “order the sheriff to do the job that they should have been done during booking, two to five days earlier, i.e., compare the prints of the arrestee with the prints of the subject of the warrant,” explained Vogel in a e-mail.
The settlement also provides that booking deputies will now have to use a statewide electronic fingerprinting system, instead of relying on names and aliases. Also, under the new policy, if a person claims to have been mistakenly arrested, a complaint form will be available to fill out during booking and the complaint will be immediately investigated.
“The important part is, now we have a policy to investigate these claims to completion,” Vogel said. “The purpose of litigation was to change the policy. They really did step up and do that. They will now be using it properly.”
If you believe you are a Class Member, visit www.countyofventura.org/velasquez_classaction, or call 1-888-449-0770.