In a Blow to Due Process, Supreme Court Gives Police the Green Light to Misidentify, Arrest and Jail Innocent Americans
By John Whitehead – October 05, 2023
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a blow to due process safeguards that protect Americans against reckless and wrongful arrests by government officials, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hold police accountable for misidentifying and wrongly arresting an innocent man twice in five years, then jailing him for three days before taking a few minutes to verify his identity.
Although David Sosa shares the same name as a man from another state named in an outstanding warrant more than 20 years old, he has a different date of birth, height, weight, and social security number, and did not have any tattoos, unlike the suspect listed in the warrant. Nevertheless, police failed to take the necessary, fundamental steps to confirm Sosa’s identity before arresting and jailing him. Weighing in before the Supreme Court in Sosa v. Martin County, Florida, The Rutherford Institute warned that if police are not held accountable for violating Sosa’s rights, then nothing will deter law enforcement officers from wrongfully arresting him over and over again or from committing similar reckless behavior toward other innocent citizens.
“What this case shows is that we have no real due process,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “If the powers-that-be want to lock you up, then you’ll be locked up, whether you’re innocent or guilty, with no access to the protections our Constitution provides.”
In 2014, David Sosa was stopped for a traffic violation by a sheriff’s deputy for Martin County, Florida, which is where Sosa lived. Sosa worked in research and development of airplane engines. The deputy discovered an arrest warrant for a “David Sosa” from 22 years earlier out of Texas for selling crack cocaine. Even though Sosa had a different date of birth, height, weight, and social security number, and did not have any tattoos as listed for the accused in the warrant, the deputy arrested him anyway. After three hours, the sheriff’s department confirmed Sosa was not the same person named in the warrant and released him. However, four years later, another deputy from the same department made a traffic stop on Sosa and found the same outstanding warrant. Once again, despite the identifying information on the warrant not matching his description and Sosa informing the deputy about the previous misidentification incident, the deputy arrested Sosa on the same warrant. But this time the jail held Sosa for three days before taking just a few minutes to run his fingerprints to confirm his identity and release him.
After his release, Sosa sued the sheriff’s department for violations of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable seizure and to not be deprived of liberty without due process, but the trial court ruled that the deputies had not violated Sosa’s rights and dismissed the case. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case, likewise ruling that Sosa’s constitutional rights were not violated, and a concurring opinion reluctantly claimed that the sheriff’s department would be protected by qualified immunity anyway. In refusing to hear the case, the U.S. Supreme Court lets stand the lower court rulings, which failed to hold police accountable for their reckless actions.
James C. Martin and Taylor A. Marcusson of Reed Smith LLP helped advance the arguments in the brief.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.
Sosa v. Martin County, Florida Amicus brief