More people wrongfully jailed

More people wrongfully jailed

By Darcy Spears. CREATED May 7, 2013

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- The whim of a judge. Mistaken identity. A lab mix-up. A computer glitch.

Each thing on that list has caused someone to be wrongfully incarcerated.

And as Contact 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears found, it happens more often than you think.

Sandra Johnson will be the first to tell you... "I'm not an angel."

Drug charges led to prison time and rehab. But she's been clean, sober and out of trouble for several years.

And she thought she'd put her past behind her.

"December 2008. Yes, case closed. Everything was handled.  Time was served, the honorable discharge from probation, and then the honorable discharge from drug court as well."

Despite all that, Sandra was arrested in January on a no-bail bench warrant and left to languish behind bars for 17 days.

Darcy: And what are you thinking as you sit there day after day?
Sandra: Um, like, how much am I losing?  I'm losing everything!  Everything I had.  I lost it all over again.

As Contact 13 uncovered, Sandra's arrest never should have happened. 

The warrant was quashed in 2008 and somewhere between the court sending paperwork to the jail and it being input into the system, the ball was dropped.

"A button isn't pressed.  A signature isn't signed.  And that's how it happens.  It happens more often than you would think," said Action News Legal Analyst Al Lasso.

Judge Linda Bell realized the error when Sandra finally got her day in court.

"I felt terrible for her," Judge Bell recalls.  "Because certainly, at least as far as drug court was concerned, she had done everything that she was supposed to do and she completed the program successfully and moved on with her life."

"Clearly her civil rights were violated," said Lasso.  "Clearly her constitutional rights were violated.  And there's no excuse for someone spending 17 days in jail for no reason."

Try 14 months.

In February, a legislative audit of the Department of Corrections found inmate Donald Davis was kept in prison for a year and two months longer than he should have.

It happened because of an error in NOTIS -- the Nevada Offender Tracking Information System.

After the 2011 legislative session, concerns were raised that NOTIS potentially had false offenses and other errors regarding inmates' criminal histories.

But it's not just computer glitches.

Take the case of Juan Delgado Perez who, in January, got on a judge's bad side.

Delgado Perez in court: I'll have to get another lawyer.
Judge: What?
Delgado Perez: I'll have to get another lawyer.
Judge: Well, good, we'll find you one.  You're remanded. Thank you. With an attitude like that you can sit in jail.

Judge Douglas Smith sent him to jail for 15 days without bail. Then increased his bail on a drug charge from $3,000 to $1,000,000.00.

Delgado Perez petitioned the Nevada Supreme Court, who found the District Court "manifestly abused its discretion."

There's also the case of Dwayne Jackson. In 2011, Las Vegas police admitted Jackson was wrongfully sent to prison for robbery for four years -- after they accidentally switched DNA samples.

"It's one number on a paper.  One date incorrect.  One click of a button, a computer key, and someone will get arrested falsely," Lasso explains.

It can be as simple as a case of mistaken identity.

Linda Bell had one of those when she worked for the Federal Public Defender.

"I had a client who was arrested on a bench warrant from a citation where somebody had used his identity.  So it was an identity theft situation.  And it took probably three days to get that straightened out and we got records from his employer showing that he had been at work at the time that the citation was issued."
Darcy: But meanwhile, he had to spend jail time while they sorted this out?
Judge Bell: Three days. Yeah. And the judge was not very happy at all.

And unfortunately, when a wrongful arrest does happen, there's often very little you can do about it.

"Mistakes do happen. There's no way around that. The court system makes mistakes because there's people inputting things. And the court is protected from these mistakes," Lasso says.

Even though those mistakes can cost someone their job, their car and, almost... their child.

"I just don't know where to turn," Sandra said through tears. "It's made my life so much harder."

Just a few weeks ago, Sandra was able to use her tax refund to buy another car, so she's at least got transportation now to get her daughter to and from school, and to look for a job.

Darcy Spears

Darcy Spears

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Darcy Spears is currently the Chief Investigative Reporter for Action News.