There must be law vs ‘mistaken identity’ arrest

THE embarrassing case of Davao City-based columnist Margarita Valle is actually an eye-opener not only for authorities but also for our lawmakers whom I believe  must craft a law that will prevent so-called ‘mistaken identity’ arrests  as part of the government’s strict policy on the protection of human rights.

It’s actually not the 1st incident of a ‘mistaken identity’ arrest in the country, maybe the 1st major one this year and sad to say, the officers who committed those past offenses were given a mere slap on the wrist since they were presumed to have committed the act in the regular performance of their duties.

The most famous of these ‘mistaken identity’ arrests for me is the arrest of a look-alike of Abu Sayyaf commander Radulan Sahiron in 2005. The Macapagal-Arroyo administration on that day announced the arrest of the most wanted terrorist only to take back its statement by saying that the man arrested turned out to be just a look-alike of the one-armed Commander Putol.

The PNP chief then, my Ninong Art Lomibao was forced to fly to Mindanao to investigate the booboo. It turned out that Commander Robot’s look-alike had an amputated left arm although the real Sahiron right arm is missing, amputated after being shot in a gunbattle with troops. Gen. Lomibao called that mistake an ‘unintentional lapse.’

A few years ago, security forces also arrested one-armed Anthony Gara, a farmer and trader from Basilan after they mistook him for Sahiron. The government was forced to release Gara after it turned out that he was a victim of a ‘mistaken arrest.’

Then there are also a number of incidents wherein soldiers and policemen have arrested the ‘wrong’ New People’s Army leaders to the embarrassment of the AFP and PNP leadership. The victims of the ‘mistaken arrests’ were eventually freed after they and their relatives presented proof of their identities and people vouched for them.

How about the cases of other innocent civilians who were arrested and detained after being mistaken for wanted terrorists and criminals by security forces in the past. Obviously, there are quite a number of these persons who suffered both physical and mental ordeal at the hands of their captors but failed to get the justice or the compensation they deserve.

In modern countries like the United States, ‘mistaken identity’ arrest is considered a big issue that some end up being slapped with lawsuits. In Denver, Colorado, I once read a story wherein the city and county of Denver and various Denver law enforcement officers were charged in court for their ‘recklessly sloppy police work’ which resulted in the innocent plaintiff’s arrest and imprisonment for crimes with which they had no connection whatsoever.

Those lawsuits described the complainants as victims of ‘mistaken identity’ arrests with Denver officers accused of deliberately ignoring facts about the persons they arrested. In some cases, those policemen were accused of arresting an entirely different person, denying them their rights and preventing them from explaining to the court that they were not the person named in the arrest warrants.

These cases are also happening in the country and should prod the PNP leadership to review its policy regarding the matter. The PNP leadership must not tolerate and turn a blind eye to such an injustice  and must immediately adopt the necessary policies, procedures, supervision and training that would reduce or eliminate the risk of such “mistaken identity” arrests.

I do understand that the identification of persons named in arrest warrants at times present a unique challenge to our law enforcers. As PNP chief, General Oscar Albayalde had admitted, the PNP at the moment relies on human intelligence since it is not that high-tech when it comes to tracking down wanted persons.

It should also be known that there are some factors which make it difficult for law enforcers to properly identify the person named in a warrant of arrest. For example, criminals  nowadays have become adept at disguising their true identity by utilizing false identification, identity theft, and adopting numerous aliases.

This is very much true in the cases of wanted rebels, terrorists and other criminals in the country. Just look at cases of Abu Sayyaf bandits from Sulu and Basilan who have used fake identities to work as security guards in Metro Manila until they were arrested by our police.

Modern technology will help address the problem on ‘mistaken identity’ arrests however. A National ID System coupled with new information technologies including computerized digital fingerprint technology will prevent similar incidents in the future and avoid putting at risk the career of an arresting officer or the life and health of the victim of the wrong arrest.

When in doubt, a working Automated Fingerprint Identification System which can capture, store, search and compare fingerprints and palm-prints will be very handy for an arresting team. It will be for the benefit of both the law enforcement community and the person being arrested, just say sorry for the inconvenience.

In the case of Valle, I believe that she had protested her wrongful arrest from the very start. You put yourself on the shoe of Valle or her daughter too. I learned that after being accosted at the Laguindingan Airport in Cagayan de Oro City, Valle immediately called her daughter on phone but their conversation ended obviously when one of the arresting officers seized her mobile phone.

Imagine your 60-year old sick mother being taken to a rough ride from Cagayan de Oro City to Pagadian City in Zamboanga del Sur and being held incommunicado for more than nine hours until the arresting officers realized they got the wrong person. This should already serve as a ‘red flag’ to the PNP particularly in exercising utmost due diligence when carrying out arrests.