Mistaken Identity: Arrested for someone else’s crime

WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – Imagine being arrested, even spending a night in a holding cell, for someone else’s crime.

It happened to Woonsocket resident Michael Egan. Now, every time he gets in his car, Egan wonders: is it going to happen again?

“Four times I’ve been detained for this,” Egan told the Target 12 Investigators.

The first time Egan was detained, he was in court handling a charge for driving with an expired license.

“The judge was like, ‘Well, we’re going to detain you because you have an outstanding warrant in Superior Court,’” Egan recalled. “My heart dropped!”

The link in court records

According to court records Target 12 uncovered, the Superior Court warrant that Egan was detained for was actually for another man named Michael. That warrant, for Michael Ceballos, was issued in 2015 for a probation violation related to a breaking-and-entering conviction out of Pawtucket.

Target 12 discovered that the case number on the Ceballos warrant was, for some reason, listed on one of Egan’s arrest reports.

“I really don’t know why it happened, or even when it happened,” Egan said. “I don’t know nothing about this kid.”

The men share a first name and a birthday, but court officials who talked to Target 12 said they don’t know why the men became connected in a statewide law enforcement database.

Another arrest

Egan was detained again in July 2016, when police pulled him over for tinted windows. During the stop, Egan’s name was flagged again for an outstanding warrant.

At the time, the officer had no way of knowing that the warrant was actually for Ceballos on that breaking-and-entering case.

Following procedure, the officer took Egan to the police station. An incident report Target 12 obtained from Woonsocket Police shows the officer trying to sort out the situation.

“Woonsocket Police dispatch called Pawtucket Police who stated they had no records of Michael Egan ever being arrested in their city,” the report said.

Egan was released.

Then seven months later, in February of this year, Egan called Woonsocket police to his home for help. But when officers showed up, they took Egan into custody on that same warrant for Michael Ceballos.

Target 12 obtained that arrest report, too. It revealed, “Michael stated that his warrant was entered in error and that it had already been investigated.”

But this time, “he was processed, afforded all applicable rights, and secured in cell #5,” according to the report.

“That was actually the worst time because they held me overnight this time,” Egan said.

For more than a year, Egan said, he tried to resolve the issue.

“Two police stations, two courthouses, and the [Rhode Island] attorney general’s office,” Egan said. “They just keep sending me in a circle. I can’t keep taking days out of work to try to fix a problem that I didn’t even do.”

No record found

In the wake of Target 12’s investigation, court paperwork no longer links Egan and Ceballos.

“This warrant is completely out of the system,” Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Oates said. Authorities also showed Target 12 the results of a search of Michael Egan’s name in the statewide law enforcement database. “No record found” popped up in the system.

Oates said officers spent hours working through court records to make sure the incorrect warrant had been withdrawn.

“I wanted to get to the bottom of it because obviously we don’t want to be taking anybody into custody that doesn’t belong in custody,” Oates added.

A sense of relief

Egan, who drives trucks for a living, told Target 12 he finally feels a sense of relief now that he doesn’t have to worry about someone else’s warrant hanging over his head. He said the positive resolution even opens up new job opportunities.

“I can drive and not worry about it affecting my job,” Egan said. “I want to go start getting my CDL. Now I definitely know the warrant won’t be an issue when I turn in my application and they run my name and background check me.”

Though officials were never able to pinpoint what caused Egan’s warrant mix-up, police tell Target 12 there have been similar cases that were caused by data entry errors and suspects giving police fake information.

Susan Campbell (scampbell@wpri.com) is the Call 12 for Action and Target 12 consumer investigator for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.