Mistaken Identity and Being Charged for a Crime You Didn’t Commit
There are plenty of legendary stories about mistaken identities, from celebrity mix-ups to the return of long-lost relatives. Take for instance the identity mix-up of two cricket players. During the morning of the Indian Premier League auction back in February of this year, newspapers announced that domestic batsman Harpreet Singh had been arrested in Mumbai over a railway incident. However, it was later discovered that it was actually Harmeet Singh a past team mate of his from the 2010 Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand, who had been taken into custody. The mix up resulted in Harpreet’s hopes of being picked up by a team dashed.
Perhaps the most serious outcome of a case of mistaken identity is in criminal matters. It sometimes happens because of faulty witness accounts or when physical evidence is mishandled. The unfortunate outcome of these types of cases is the conviction and incarceration of an innocent person.
A wrongful conviction due to botched evidence or perjured testimony is bad enough, but an entirely different brand of incorrect criminal charges exists. Sometimes a wrongful arrest or conviction occurs due to mistaken identity. In some ways it is akin to identity theft, except that the stakes are much higher.
How Cases of Mistaken Identity Can Happen
Older technology, typos and the passage of time can wreak havoc on identity records. From poor handwriting by police, computer glitches to badly maintained systems, anything that muddies the waters has the potential to cause mis-identification. On the surface, mistaken identity arrests that relied upon old information or were made in response to crimes that occurred before the widespread use of computers, DNA evidence and other technology are perhaps easier to understand.
People often share names, and to a lesser extent, the same birthdate as well. They may share physical characteristics. They may live on the same streets. They may even be related. All of these things can play a part in faulty identifications.
However, cultural issues may also play a part in both the cases of mistaken identity and the perpetuation of the error. One WA expert quoted by ABC listed the following factors as potential issues in mistaken identity arrests:
- Cultural practices in the Indigenous populations or populations where English is not the primary language.
- Lack of understanding of cultural practices by law enforcement.
- A lack of understanding of the legal system and not challenging mistakes.
- Court proceedings that are rushed and confusing.
One seemingly minor mistaken arrest could lead to years of unraveling its detrimental effects. For example, a mistaken identity case in Kununurra was not discovered for 13 years. Police arrested a 24-year-old man and then mistakenly identified him as a 17-year-old youth with the same name. The case was even dealt with through the Children’s Court, with the conviction then wrongly entered onto the youth’s record, although it was the 24-year old who stood trial. The error came to light when the now 37-year-old man was arrested again and police found his fingerprints matched two identities. Police characterized the issue as “a small mix-up.”
Long-term Effects of Mistaken Identity
Many wrongful charges due to mistaken identity may not surface for years. The technology used today to identify suspects is far advanced from that used even just ten years ago. However, that does not mean that the mistakes are automatically rectified. Often innocent detainees sit and languish in custody for weeks or even months while seeking court intervention to verify their identity.
There is also the issue of the expense and time involved in having records of mistaken charges expunged. Never mind the havoc wrongful arrests play on a person’s family, life and job.
Most cases of mistaken identity are rectified before the case goes to trial. However, critics argue we do not know how many people are in jail, or have a criminal record due to a case of mistaken identity. According to American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Mark Silverstein, mistaken identity arrests are not just a “fluke” in a rational system.
Arrests made on mistaken identity happen far too often. The Sydney Exoneration Project revealed that almost three quarters of wrongful convictions were due to mistaken identity incurred from false confessions and false memories. This is particularly problematic when wrongful convictions lead to innocent people being incarcerated, as well as them incurring unnecessary legal fees and a criminal record for crimes they did not commit.
How Police Identify Individuals
The NSW Police Handbook advises officers to establish a suspect’s identity by searching “all available information and intelligence systems.” Police may take fingerprints and palmprints in certain situations. However, police also may decide that, since they know someone by name, there is no need to check fingerprints. In terms of warrants that predate existing technologies, however, not fingerprinting may cause serious problems.
As the risk of mistaken identity continues, let’s hope that improvements in technology decrease its potential in the future.