In a lawsuit filed today, ACLU lawyers alleged that a Denver police officer’s “recklessly sloppy” police work—which included false statements and crucial omissions in an affidavit the officer submitted to a judge—caused a local woman with no criminal record to be falsely arrested and jailed for an incident with which she had no connection whatsoever.

The suit was filed on behalf of Valerie Rodriguez, who has worked for a nationally known financial company in Denver for seven years. When she applied for a temporary seasonal job with the Postal Service in 2005, she was rejected because a background check purportedly revealed that she had a criminal record.

“Our client immediately investigated what she knew was a terrible mistake,” said Elisa Moran, who represents Ms. Rodriguez as an ACLU cooperating attorney. “She found out that there was an outstanding warrant for her arrest, for an alleged assault of a woman whom she did not know and had never met. When Valerie went to the Denver Police Department to straighten out the error, she was arrested, fingerprinted, and thrown into a cramped and scary jail cell, where she spent hours waiting for bail.”

According to the lawsuit, the bogus warrant stemmed from an incident nine months earlier at a gas station in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. A young woman flagged down officer Timothy Scudder, the defendant in the ACLU’s lawsuit. She reported that she had been struck by an acquaintance she knew as “Big Val.” The victim said that “Big Val,” who was reportedly a drug user and prostitute, had fled the scene on foot.

“The victim said that ‘Big Val’ lived a few blocks away and that her full name was Valerie Rodriguez,” Moran explained. “Officer Scudder searched a noncriminal computer database for that name, found our client’s name, and then wrote up a criminal complaint and warrant application with our client’s date of birth, social security number, and driver’s license number.”

“Valerie had no criminal record, had been living in the home she owns in Aurora for six years, and had never lived anywhere near Five Points,” Moran said. “If Officer Scudder had spent two additional minutes investigating, he would have found the eight-page-long criminal record of a different Valerie Rodriguez who did live in the Five Points area. Officer Scudder did not bother showing any photographs to the victim and he did not bother checking out the nearby address of the suspect that the victim provided. Instead, he obtained an arrest warrant by falsely stating that the victim knew our client and had identified her as the person responsible for a criminal assault.”

“Police officers have the power to scribble a few lines on a pre-printed form and obtain a warrant for a person’s arrest,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “Police have a responsibility to exercise that power with the utmost care. That did not happen in this case.”

“If Officer Scudder had investigated properly, he would not have sought a warrant for Valerie’s arrest.” Silverstein continued. “If Officer Scudder had submitted an honest affidavit with all the facts, no judge would have issued the warrant. Because of Officer Scudder’s recklessly sloppy police work, however, Valerie lost a job opportunity, endured the horror of a baseless arrest, spent time in a jail cell, and then had to spend hours and dollars to clear her name and get the groundless charges dismissed.”

“What happened to our client raises serious questions about how many other groundless warrants are silently lurking in police computers,” Silverstein said, noting that ACLU lawyers filed suit four months ago against a Lakewood detective who obtained a similarly bogus warrant that caused the false arrest and jailing of another innocent woman.

“These warrants will remain active for months or years,” Silverstein continued, “and the persons wrongly named will have no idea they are accused of something they did not do. They won’t know until an officer happens to check the computer, and a minor accident or a routine traffic stop is suddenly transformed into a mandatory trip to jail, complete with handcuffs, fingerprints, mug shots, and who knows how long a wait for bail.”

According to today’s lawsuit, the false charges of assault against Ms. Rodriguez were dismissed, and she was able to get an order sealing the record of her false arrest. After a Channel 7 news investigation publicized Ms. Rodriguez’s ordeal, the Denver Police Department conducted an investigation. Officer Scudder received a written reprimand for “improper procedure.”

The ACLU’s suit, Rodriguez v. Scudder, was filed in federal district court in Denver.

more on this case