The Letter of the Law
Posted on Oct 13 2005
The perils of having a common, unremarkable name are familiar to Sen. Ted Kennedy, who ran into trouble getting on planes several times last year when a name similar to his came up on an anti-terrorism no-fly list. A couple other congressmen have had the same problem, as have a number of parents whose infant children's names came up on the list.
In the dystopian movie Brazil, a name similarity has a much more dire result: during a terrorism crackdown an innocent man is arrested, tortured and killed after a bug falls into a teletype machine, causing it to print out his name, Buttle, instead of Tuttle, the name of an actual terrorist. When the movie's hero tries to follow up on the mistake, agents of the Ministry of Information won't admit they iced the wrong man.
For Hartford resident Frank L. Robinson, the results of a misidentification fell somewhere between inconvenience and terror. He was moving into a new home in the North End one spring evening in March 2002 when a police officer showed up with a five-year-old drug warrant, arrested him and hauled him off to the police station. Robinson had just undergone laser eye surgery, and spent a weekend in jail without his medicine before he was released.
The case against him was eventually dismissed because he wasn't the man the police were looking for, said his attorney, A. Paul Spinella.
Spinella's client is named Frank Lamar Robinson, his middle name spelled with two "A"s. But the original suspect in the 1997 drug sale that led to the warrant was a different man -- Frank Lemar Robinson, his middle name spelled with an "E".
Lawyers for the police and the city didn't respond to requests for comment, so it isn't clear exactly how the mixup occurred.
But on a computer printout, the two men had some attributes in common in 2002: they were both African-American residents of Hartford's North End, with criminal histories and nearly identical names. One difference is that in the years after the 1997 incident, the real suspect was in prison, apparently on unrelated charges. Somehow a warrant was issued in the other Robinson's name.
At the time of his arrest, that older Frank Robinson, Spinella's client, didn't know anything about mistaken identities. All he knew was that he was grabbed for no conceivable reason, put behind bars, and then set free without any explanation.
Apparently, subjecting an innocent man to a Kafkaesque ordeal is not, in itself, against the law in Connecticut. So Robinson is suing the city and police for monetary damages, claiming he suffered excessive discomfort recovering from his surgery, as well as emotional distress, fear of law enforcement officials, humiliation and loss of reputation.
"The case was eventually dismissed, but it was pretty traumatizing to him," Spinella said. "He's had kind of a tough life, then he was thrown in this jail, and he didn't have his medicine with him. He's had his scrapes with the law in the past, but he was on the straight and narrow for at least a decade. After seeing him being taken by the police in the middle of the day, his neighbors thought he was a drug dealer."
The police had been targeting drug dealers around Brook Street in the Clay-Arsenal neighborhood for weeks when they performed the drug buy that began all this, on May 14, 1997.
At 11 p.m. that night, officers at Brook and Mather streets bought cocaine from a man who Officer David Kardys immediately identified as Frank Robinson, believed to be about 35 years old, according to documents filed in the case. The suspect was not arrested. A warrant was issued the following week, but it would not be served until almost five years later.
When Robinson with an "A" sued the city in 2003, his lawsuit initially claimed that Kardys was incorrect when he thought he saw Robinson with an "A" sell the drug. Robinson with an "A" claimed in his suit that in fact he was at a group therapy session the night of May 14 and nowhere near the corner of Brook and Mather streets, and so he couldn't have been there.
But this year, as lawyers for both sides continued gathering evidence in preparation for a trial, they discovered that both Kardys and Robinson were right.
According to a legal filing by attorney Jeffrey G. Schwartz, who represents the city and the police, the man who sold the drugs in 1997 was 24-year-old North End resident Frank Lemar Robinson (with an "E"), who had a criminal record and who Kardys evidently recognized.
It seems the police intended to create a valid arrest warrant on Frank Lemar with an "E", and when they saw a nearly identical name come up in their files they or their computers figured it was the same guy. Never mind that the men look different, or that "A" was 44 years old at the time of the drug sale -- 20 years older than the actual suspect,"E".
Never mind, too, that the elder Robinson had stayed out of trouble for years, according to his lawyer, while the younger had recently been charged with crimes.
The younger Robinson, "E", was known on the street as "Stinky," Spinella said.
"Stinky is a much younger guy," the lawyer said. "He had a different date of birth, naturally, social security number, and everything else. All it would have taken was a little attention on their part, because the cops knew who it was they wanted, and when the warrant was processed they would have seen right away that the person named was my client."
Stinky, in fact, was imprisoned again earlier this year on a drug conviction, and is currently at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, according to a Department of Correction inmate database. Or at least someone with the name Frank Lemar Robinson is.
The Advocate submitted questions about the Robinson case to Schwartz, the attorney for the police, but he did not respond by press time. John Rose, corporation counsel for the city, did not return a phone message.
Official apathy is typical in such cases, Spinella said. "Unfortunately, for the private citizen there's really no accountability here," he said. "Someone comes in and snatches you, and then says, 'Sorry.' The only remedy the average citizen has is to bring a lawsuit. Because you know the police don't police themselves, and it's no remedy to file a complaint with the police department."
Spinella, whose practice specializes in police misconduct, said he's seeing more and more mistaken-identity cases in Connecticut. Last year he sued the city of Milford on behalf of Nelson Hernandez, who was arrested and jailed in September 2003 when police allegedly mistook him for another man with the same name who was wanted in Maryland. The suit accuses the police of covering up their error and failing to discipline officers who were involved.
Frank Lamar Robinson with an "A" has sued the city of Hartford, former Chief Bruce Marquis, and four officers including arresting officer Michael Francis. In settlement discussions last year, Robinson asked for $175,000 and the city offered $10,000, according to a court document. As the trial date approached, Robinson's figure dropped, and the two sides finally agreed on $25,000, subject to City Council approval.
Last month the council had a closed-door executive-session meeting to discuss the case, but last week Spinella said he hadn't yet heard if council members had approved the payment.