Identity swap gives arrestee way out of jail

Man switched wristband with another at city jail

`Miracle' it hasn't happened before

Suspect with violent past mistakenly freed in Jan.

February 09, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

A man with a history of violent convictions who was arrested recently for holding a loaded handgun as a Baltimore police officer approached during a traffic stop was mistakenly released last month from the city's Central Booking and Intake Center after apparently switching identification wristbands with a man facing lesser charges.

City and state police were searching yesterday for 25-year-old Davon Perry of the 1600 block of Edmondson Ave. Susan Murphy, warden at central booking, wrote in an arrest warrant that the situation was "serious enough to jeopardize public safety."

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees central booking, said he couldn't recall another successful identity switch in the 10-year history of the facility. But Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office said the central booking center is so flooded with arrestees - processing as many as 300 people each day - that "it's a miracle this hasn't happened before."

Court documents show that Perry conspired with or forced Comilio Mitchell, 27, who was arrested a few hours after Perry, to swap wristbands with him after being booked on their charges, but before either man was fingerprinted or photographed. The bands are supposed to fit snugly because they are "secure devices," Vernarelli said, adding that booking officials were investigating how the switch occurred.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and city public defender who worked out of an office at central booking for two years, said the switching scenario seemed implausible because the arrestee's photograph is supposed to be printed on the wristband.

"I'm baffled as to how this happened," she said. "It sounds to me as if central booking is blaming the inmates for what sounds more like a paperwork problem."

Vernarelli said the bands that were switched were temporary ones that were issued before the permanent bands with photographs were ready.

He said the timing of the swap meant that Perry, who was arrested late Jan. 26 on six firearms violation charges related to having a handgun during a traffic stop, effectively posed as Mitchell during fingerprinting and photographing, and assumed that man's charges. Mitchell had been arrested early Jan. 27 on four charges of drug possession and possession with intent to distribute.

Prosecutors soon decided not to pursue charges against Mitchell - as Burns said is the case in about one-third of the city's drug arrests - which triggered his release.

But because of the identity switch, it was Perry who walked out of the facility about 10 p.m. Jan. 27. Vernarelli said booking officials routinely fingerprint arrestees before they are released, but Perry beat that system because his fingerprints and photograph matched up with Mitchell's charges.

"While there is no excuse for this happening, we absolutely do not blame any staff for this," Vernarelli said in a written statement. "The detainees apparently used a very small window of opportunity during an extremely busy time of night to effect this escape by Mr. Perry."

Vernarelli said booking officials believe the two men knew each other before their arrests and that that "played a role" in the identity switch. He also said the department has been considering changing wristbands for some time and that vendors are preparing different models from which to choose.

Central booking staff members realized the mistaken release a few hours after Perry left, when Mitchell brought it to their attention. The next day, Jan. 28, the warden filed a new arrest warrant for Mitchell seeking to keep him in jail because of the switch.

Murphy wrote in the warrant that the two inmates "agreed to this exchange."

"By exchanging ... bands with Davon Perry, [Mitchell] allowed Davon Perry to elude justice and escape lawful detention," Murphy wrote.

But charges filed Feb 1 against Perry that are related to the identity switch tell a different story. Burns said the arrest warrant for Perry charges him with armed robbery and alleges that he might have used a penknife during the incident at central booking.

Vernarelli said he knew nothing of a penknife.

Burns said that because there was no evidence that Mitchell was a willing participant in the wristband switch, prosecutors threw out the warden's arrest warrant for him.

When reached yesterday, Murphy declined to comment, noting the communications policy of the center's parent agency.

It appears that Mitchell, who is not in custody, no longer has open arrest warrants. Burns and Vernarelli said the investigation into what happened the night of the switch could change that.

Perry has a long history of violent convictions, court records show.

He pleaded guilty in April 1997, at age 17, to robbery with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to three years in prison. Convictions for attempted robbery, resisting arrest, drug possession and drug possession with intent to distribute followed his release.

Mitchell's criminal record includes several drug possession and distribution convictions and a second-degree assault conviction from June 1998.

Burns said that Perry's accidental release, while surprising, did not cause prosecutors special concern because he is one of thousands of Baltimore residents with open warrants.

She said prosecutors were more concerned with the crush of people coming into central booking each day, and the situation with Perry and Mitchell "is reflective of that environment."

"It's amazing this type of ruse has not developed in the past," she said. "Anyone who is in law enforcement custody is working overtime thinking about how to get out from custody."

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