Paper Chase

At 4:30 on a May afternoon, Jason Armando Flores left his north Houston home to pick up his mother from work. He'd driven just two blocks when a deputy constable caught sight of his shiny red F-150 and noticed that he wasn't wearing his seat belt.

The officer had the 26-year-old Flores pull his vehicle over to the side of the road. After the cop ran a check on his driver's license, name and date of birth, Flores says, he heard the ominous orders: "I need you to step out of the vehicle."

"For what?" a confused Flores asked. "Why I gotta step out of the truck?"

Without replying, the officer asked him again to step out. Flores was handcuffed, searched and escorted to the backseat of the patrol car.

Flores asked again why he was being arrested. The deputy told him that the city of South Houston had a warrant for his arrest from October 1, 1998, for accosting a woman. Flores was stunned. He's an ESL and GED instructor for Harris County, a teacher at his Catholic church and a DJ on weekends. Furthermore, he's never even been to South Houston.

"I don't see how I could have a warrant," he told the officer.

"That's what everybody says," the deputy replied.

Flores asked the officer for permission to call his mother to let her know that he wouldn't be able to pick her up.

"No," the officer told him. "She'll find out later, when you're in jail."

However disgusting the situation, there was also an element of déjà vu. Jason Armando Flores didn't have himself to blame. But he did have Jason Armando Flores to blame -- the Flores who shares his name and just happened to be born on the same date, one year earlier than the innocent teacher now in custody.

Five years ago a Harris County sheriff's deputy arrested the educator on a warrant that Pasadena had issued for the other Flores. The innocent Flores avoided jail, but only because Pasadena police didn't want to make the drive to northwest Houston, where he'd been arrested. Flores says that in that incident the officer literally pulled him by his shirt out of his vehicle. Angry, Flores filed a grievance but never got an apology.

In the May arrest, Tony Hernandez, the Harris County Precinct 1 deputy constable who stopped him, radioed in the information to his dispatcher, who contacted South Houston police dispatcher Linda Kirkpatrick.

Based on only his name and date of birth, Kirkpatrick reported that Flores had a warrant. In a tape recording, Kirkpatrick can be heard having other conversations and saying "oops" when her computer blanks out. Flores feels that Kirkpatrick should have asked the Harris County Precinct 1 dispatcher to wait while she confirmed her information.

"She wasn't very professional," Flores says.

Deputy Hernandez allowed Flores to call his mother when they arrived at the Precinct 1 station, where the officer had arranged to release Flores to South Houston police.

Flores's mother, who works a few blocks away, arrived promptly and tried to explain the mistaken identity to Hernandez. "My mom did say, 'Can you just wait? My husband's on his way. He's got the paperwork that will get my son out of this mess.' And they said, 'Nope.' "

Shortly after South Houston police picked Flores up, his father arrived with documentation from five years before, stating that he was not a wanted man. But it was too late -- Flores was already on his way to jail.

The family's fight followed him to South Houston, where Jason Flores was held behind bars for more than three hours. After his parents brought in proof of his innocence, South Houston officers finally allowed him to go.

Municipal court records still show an outstanding warrant of $320 that has not been paid. And the current warrant charges Jason Armando Flores with public intoxication and disorderly conduct, even though his warrant description in the South Houston computer system is for accosting a woman.

So far he has "gotten out scot-free without having to go to jail, and I had to pay for his crimes," Flores says.

Flores is also upset that the arresting officer didn't give him a chance to prove himself innocent.

"My mom told him that he had the wrong person, and he blew her off," he says. "He acted like I was a criminal." Hernandez did ask him where the documentation was. Flores said he didn't have the papers on him.

"I don't have them. I haven't been stopped for a long time, so I figured I didn't have to carry them," Flores remembers saying. "Then he said, 'Well, you need to carry your letters around.' "

Nowadays, Flores's cargo could rival a postal service carrier's. He's loaded up with letters -- letters from South Houston, Pasadena, Harris County and the city of Houston municipal court; all attest to the fact that he has no warrants or anything else on his record.

"I get scared sometimes when I leave the house" without them, he says. "I make a U-turn and go back and get the papers. It's horrible."

He's still irate over the mistakes made by law enforcement agencies. "There's a lot of other innocent people in jail, but they're still sitting in jail because they have nothing to prove their innocence."

Flores had hoped to file a lawsuit for this case of wrongful arrest. He consulted various lawyers, and all of them advised him that police have legal immunity from such complaints.

Defense attorney Mike Hinton says a lawsuit probably would have been unsuccessful in this case, since officers were operating within their scope of duty.

However, American Civil Liberties Union Houston chapter vice president David George feels that officials need to exercise the proper level of care. "The police department needs to look at its procedures, because that puts any law-abiding citizen at risk," George says.

According to David Crump, a law professor at the University of Houston, this kind of dilemma goes back to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the landmark case of Pierson v. Ray. Justices found that officers should not be forced to decide between dereliction of duty or being liable for damages if they acted in good faith but were at fault.

"On the one hand we'd like to see people compensated, but we don't want to discourage police from doing the job in a reasonable way," Crump says. "Nonprofessionalism by itself doesn't constitute a claim."

Only after Flores sent letters requesting apologies did he receive one. The city of South Houston replied with an apology. But he's still waiting for Kirkpatrick as well as Hernandez to say they are sorry.

J.C. Mosier, assistant chief for the Precinct 1 constable's office, doesn't think apologies are in order. "I'm personally sorry that this happened, but my employees did their job. They did everything by the book," he says.

The assistant chief reiterates that his employees took the necessary steps in the license check, giving accurate information to South Houston. Had that city's dispatcher and her department followed his precinct's policy of examining the actual warrant on file, she would have seen the discrepancies, he says.

As for Flores's documentation, it "didn't clarify that this was a different person," Mosier says. The letter merely stated that, as of May 1998, he wasn't wanted by the Pasadena Police Department. "That doesn't help him with the South Houston Police Department."

However, Mosier sympathizes with Flores for the unfortunate arrest. "It's the worst thing we can do," he says, noting that his office acted to prevent a repeat.

"After this incident, we reiterated to our warrant division and our dispatchers to be diligent with checking on people with names that are seen frequently. To all of our dispatchers, we said, 'You did a good job on this one, but it can happen.' "

South Houston Police Chief Sharon Highfill declined to discuss the case, saying it is under evaluation and that there are preventative measures being planned.

Flores, meanwhile, figures if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

He's applied to the police academy, hoping to become a reserve in the sheriff's department. Barring any mistaken identity problems with the checks into his background, he'll know in about three weeks if he's been admitted. His dream is to become an officer.

"That way, instead of carrying letters around," he says, "I'll just carry a badge."

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