CARSON CITY — A Las Vegas man who was arrested or detained at least 11 times by Las Vegas police because his name and other personal information matched that of a drug-trafficking fugitive has lost his legal battle against the law enforcement agency.
Francisco Gonzalez filed a complaint against the Metropolitan Police Department alleging negligence and false imprisonment after North Las Vegas police issued an arrest warrant in November 2007 for Francisco Garcia-Gonzalez and entered it into the Nevada Criminal Justice Information System. After that, Francisco Gonzalez was repeatedly detained and arrested by Las Vegas police based on the information contained in the warrant.
But the Nevada Supreme Court, in an order dated Thursday, upheld a decision by a lower court judge to dismiss the case based on a state law granting discretionary immunity for law enforcement actions and because there was probable cause for the arrests and detentions.
In its ruling, the court said Francisco Gonzalez had the same name, birth date, height and eye color as the wanted man, although his attorney disputed the birth date similarity. As a result, he was then arrested or detained at least 11 times between June 2008 and August 2010. Each incident involved a different Las Vegas police officer.
The North Las Vegas police ultimately modified the warrant and since then, Gonzalez has not had any additional incidents with Las Vegas police.
Andrew Lagomarsino, Gonzalez’s attorney, disputed some of these facts in his appeal of the lower court ruling, noting that their birthdays were different and that there were other factors that clearly showed them to be two different persons.
Lagomarsino, who declined to comment on the ruling, said in his appeal that his client had never been arrested before and it was clear that Las Vegas police knew they were detaining and arresting the wrong man.
He said in his appeal that Gonzalez had been detained for long periods of time and at times arrested “for nothing more than having a similar name as a wanted man that has a warrant issued for his arrest.”
Gonzalez attempted to end the encounters with Las Vegas police by obtaining an “Identity Passport” to convince them they had the wrong man. The passport puts police officers on notice that prior to detaining or arresting a person, further investigation is required.
“However, the respondent officers continued to falsely arrest (Gonzalez) regardless of the fact that its officers did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to do so,” Lagomarsino said in his appeal.
The “harassment” by Las Vegas police caused “irrevocable damage to his mental health, relationships with his employers and relationships with family and friends,” Lagomarsino said.
Gonzalez, who was described in court documents as being an employee of Sunbelt Communications where he restores cars, could not be reached for comment.
For its part, the Las Vegas Police Department said in its response that its officers do not have access to photographs or fingerprints in the field. As a result, officers were required to use their discretion to make an educated guess as to whether Gonzalez was the “wanted” Gonzalez.
Las Vegas police had no ability to change the warrant issued by another jurisdiction and was required to follow the terms of the warrant, the response said.
Craig Anderson, the attorney representing Las Vegas police in the case, said Friday the department is pleased that the court made the correct legal decision, but at the same time officials are sympathetic to Gonzalez’s ordeal.
The situation comes up on occasion when there is a similarity of names, he said. In Gonzalez’s case, most of the Las Vegas police stops lasted only a few minutes. There were three or four occasions when he was taken to North Las Vegas for processing but he was never booked, Anderson said.
“It’s a tough case,” he said. “You don’t want to be Francisco. But you don’t want a cop in the field trying to make decisions with the fear of liability.”
The police stops ended when North Las Vegas police updated their warrant information, Anderson said.
In its ruling, a three-justice panel of the court said that while it was sympathetic to Gonzalez’s plight, the “decision to detain or arrest a person closely matching a warrant’s description is the type of decision that discretionary immunity should protect.”
The stops “were in furtherance of public policy goals, including the apprehension and arrest of wanted criminals pursuant to a facially valid arrest warrant,” the court said.
Finding liability against Las Vegas police in Gonzalez’s case could cause other problems, such as forcing officers to choose between releasing a potential criminal and running the risk of civil liability, the court said.
“Officers must be able to make this decision confidently,” the court said.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Review-Journal writer Mike Blasky contributed to this report. Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3900. Follow him on Twitter @seanw801.