A man whose photo was incorrectly listed in a Crime Stoppers ad as an attempted murder suspect is suing the city of Lodi, seeking at least $600,000 in damages.
Rosendo Alfaro Perez claims in the lawsuit filed this month that he was "exposed to hatred, contempt, ridicule and disgrace" when his photo appeared in a Crime Stoppers newspaper ad.
The city admits that a mistake was made: The actual wanted man has a different middle name - Ruelas, not Alfaro.
The paid advertisement was published in the Lodi News-Sentinel on Feb. 13, 2008. That same day, Perez went to an attorney after waking to phone calls from friends asking why his photo was in the newspaper.
Perez thought there was a warrant out for his arrest, said his attorney, Gil Somera. His office has no problem with the police department overall, Somera said, but the goal is to make sure such mistakes don't happen again.
"He thought there was a warrant for his arrest. He was terrified when he came into our office," Somera said.
He acknowledged that Perez's photo is in the police department's database, but said it was for a reckless driving incident that has since been cleared up. He said his client works and has children, and is certainly not the type to be accused of attempted murder, as well as assault and cruelty to a child by injury.
"(Perez's) mug shot was in our database. Their first and last names were the same, the general physical descriptions were the same. But it was done in error and the city regrets it," Magdich said. "The city is extremely sorry that it happened."
The real suspect is wanted in connection with a Dec. 2, 2007, shooting in which he allegedly tracked down his ex-wife's boyfriend and shot him in the back, Lodi police said at the time. He has not been arrested.
After Perez went to an attorney, the police department prepared a correction to run in the newspaper. That correction was first presented to Perez's attorney, who made "substantial changes," Deputy City Attorney Janice Magdich said.
The correction, approved by Perez's attorney, subsequently ran in the newspaper with his photo, indicating that he was not a suspect.
The city never heard from Perez or his attorney again, Magdich said. Then he filed a claim with the city on Aug. 6 for damages in excess of $10,000. Such a claim is required before someone may sue a government entity.
City employees investigated the claim, Magdich said, and rejected it.
"When the city just ignores a claim, that's no way to apologize to someone," Somera said. "I think it's better to say hey, let's talk about it and make it right for your client."
As for the dollar amount, Somera acknowledged that $600,000 for damages plus $300,000 in punitive damages - which Magdich noted cannot be leveled against a government entity - are high. He didn't say how much money he would actually settle for.
The city has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit and has not yet done so, Magdich said. It is scheduled for a court conference on July 31.
"What about the loss of wages, the fees to hire a criminal defense attorney to make sure you're not going to be arrested when you're driving down the road?" he said.
Somera said it's not the first mistaken identity case he's had, and that the goal is to make sure the error isn't repeated.
The police employee who pulled the photo from a computer database has since retired, and Capt. Gary Benincasa said it was a mistake that had never previously happened, and hasn't since.
But nationwide, such things do happen. Not long ago, Somera represented a man who took a trip to the Philippines and found himself being arrested and jailed when he returned to California. It turned out that a different man with a similar name was wanted on a Stanislaus County warrant.
"Simple mistakes by people in authority can wreak havoc," Somera said.