Florida resident David Sosa was arrested twice because Martin County sheriff’s deputies twice mistook him for a wanted man who had the same name but otherwise bore little resemblance to him. That unlucky experience, according to a January 20 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, did not violate Sosa’s constitutional rights. Sosa is asking the Supreme Court to overturn that decision, and he is not alone: He is joined by four other David Sosas who signed onto an Institute for Justice (I.J.) brief that underlines their common peril.
“As David Sosas,” the I.J. brief explains, “they’re interested in this case because the ruling below puts them at risk of a lawless three-day detention whenever they’re in Florida, Georgia, or Alabama”—the three states that comprise the 11th Circuit. “If something like this could happen to one of the David Sosas in Florida,” says David Sosa, a 51-year-old resident of Mecklenburg, North Carolina, “it could happen to a David Sosa anywhere, which is why I’m supporting this important case.”
During a routine traffic stop in Martin County, Florida, nine years ago, David Sosa—the one who brought the lawsuit that the 11th Circuit rejected—was arrested based on a 22-year-old Harris County, Texas, warrant for a man with the same name who was accused of selling crack cocaine. “Although Sosa protested during the traffic stop that the wanted man’s date of birth, height, weight, social security number, and tattoo information did not match his own identifiers,” the appeals court noted, “deputies arrested, detained, and fingerprinted Sosa.” They detained the demonstrably innocent man for three hours before releasing him.
Four years later, in April 2018, the same law enforcement agency, the Martin County Sheriff’s Department, made the same mistake again. “Another deputy sheriff checked Sosa’s driver’s license during a traffic stop and found the same Texas warrant,” the 11th Circuit explained. “Again, Sosa objected that the identifiers listed on the warrant did not describe him. Sosa also told the deputies about the misidentification in 2014.” Deputies arrested Sosa anyway and “brought him to the Martin County jail, where, despite Sosa’s continued insistence to deputies and jailers that he was not the wanted man, his detention lasted three days over a weekend.” He was finally released after a fingerprint comparison confirmed what all the other information about the suspect indicated: He was a different David Sosa.
Despite this comedy-cum-tragedy of easily detected and corrected errors, a three-judge 11th Circuit panel concluded in 2021 that even Sosa’s second arrest (the more egregious of the two incidents) was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. “When a valid warrant underlies an arrest, but law-enforcement officers mistakenly arrest the wrong person because of a misidentification, a ‘reasonable mistake’ standard governs the constitutionality of the arrest,” it said. Applying that standard to the deputy who arrested Sosa the second time around, the judges concluded that the differences Sosa noted between himself and the suspected drug dealer “were not material, viewed in the totality of the circumstances.”
The panel nevertheless thought Sosa had stated a valid 14th Amendment claim: that the sheriff’s deputies violated his “substantive due-process right to be free from continued detention after it should have been known that [he] was entitled to release.” The en banc 11th Circuit opinion issued in January rejected that conclusion, saying it was foreclosed by Baker v. McCollan, a 1979 case in which the Supreme Court held that “a detention due to mistaken identity ‘gives rise to no claim under the United States Constitution’ when it lasts only ‘three days’ and is ‘pursuant to a warrant conforming…to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.'”
Where does that leave David Sosa? He was wrongly arrested twice and has no assurance that the same thing won’t happen again. After the first arrest, the 11th Circuit panel noted in its 2021 decision, “no one created a file or otherwise documented that Sosa was not the wanted Sosa. Nor did the Sheriff’s Department have any system to prevent Sosa’s future mistaken arrest on the wanted Sosa’s warrant.”
Worse, Sosa’s experience suggests that all the other innocent Americans named David Sosa have cause to worry that they could be victims of the same confusion. The David Sosa wanted in Texas, I.J. notes, is “not the David Sosa who chairs the philosophy department at the University of Texas. Nor is it the New York-based songwriter David Sosa. It’s also not the David Sosa who’s a cardiologist in Albuquerque, the one who works at the USDA, the law student at University of Miami, or the David Sosa who owns a construction company in Winston-Salem.” All told, I.J. identified “at least 924” David Sosas in the United States, and “only one of them is suspected of selling crack cocaine in Harris County, Texas, back in the 1990s.”
According to the 11th Circuit, none of those other David Sosas would have a constitutional claim if he were arrested and detained based on nothing more than his name. I.J. argues that the appeals court “ignored the Petitioner’s Fourth Amendment rights based on a misstatement of law in one of this Court’s decisions that has been abrogated but never expressly overruled.” In Baker, it says, the Supreme Court “concluded erroneously that the Fourth Amendment has nothing to say about an ongoing seizure so long as police relied initially on a facially valid arrest warrant.” That conclusion, the brief says, “is contrary to this Court’s current jurisprudence and is no longer good law.”
The constitutional provision that the 11th Circuit did address, the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, “should have also protected Sosa’s right to be free from arbitrary detainment, but the court below flouted centuries of precedent establishing that fundamental right,” I.J. adds. “It should have been obvious to both the arresting officers and the court below that police cannot jail an innocent person for three days before they verify his identity.”
The problem highlighted by this case is not limited to David Sosas, of course. In 2020, for example, New Orleans Harbor Police arrested Sara Saucier as she disembarked from a honeymoon cruise to Cozumel. They claimed she was wanted in East Baton Rouge Parish for failing to return a leased vehicle in 2017.
“At first,” Saucier told the CBS affiliate in Baton Rouge, “I thought they would realize they made the mistake and they’d let me go as soon as they did realize it, so I was hopeful at first.” Instead, “she spent the day and night in Orleans Parish Prison” and was transported the next day to East Baton Rouge Parish Jail, where the sheriff’s office says it finally realized it had the wrong Sara Saucier. The wanted woman was notably shorter and had a different birth date.
Jennifer Heath Box, a Texas tourist who was arrested in December after a cruise out of Port Everglades, Florida, was even less lucky. The ABC affiliate in Miami reports that she “spent three nights inside the Broward County Jail, including Christmas Day,” because Deputy Peter Peraza confused her with a Jennifer Heath who was facing felony child endangerment charges in Houston. The suspect would have been 26, and the charges involved a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. “I’m 49 years old—huge age difference,” Heath Box told the TV station. “I don’t have children under the age of 5.”
When a deputy at the jail ran her driver’s license, Heath Box said, her record was clean, but that did not deter Peraza, who was sure he had the right woman. “The whole time I was like, ‘this is not happening,'” she said. “The strip search, the humiliation, the shackles, the prison uniform, being issued blankets.”
I.J. is urging the Supreme Court to reject the notion that reckless errors like these do not implicate constitutional rights. “The Constitution demands more from officers who conduct warrant checks than the Respondents did in this case,” it says. “It should have been immediately obvious that they had the wrong David Sosa before they arrested him. There’s no excuse for taking three days to figure it out.”