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Mistaken identity victim fights to clear her name

May 3, 2010 11:35:33 PM PDT
With the constant expansion of electronic records, you never know which databases might contain your name and identity. 7 On Your Side has a special report about how a data entry error caused one woman to be blamed for a crime she didn't commit.

Because of the mistake, an innocent woman was not only blamed for a crime she didn't commit, but had to prove she was not the real criminal. It brought grief into the lives of the woman, her blind husband, and their three young children.

It all began at the Fremont city jail. A woman named Maria Jimenez was booked for assault with a deadly weapon and then came a terrible mistake. It was a mistake that reached all the way to the Central Valley, to the tiny town of Riverbank to a close knit family of five and turned their quiet lives upside down.

"I'm thinking, there's no way. I'm a good person overall. This can't be happening to me," said Maria Duenas.

At first, Maria had no clue of any problem. She was working fulltime, raising three kids, and caring for a husband who is blind and diabetic. Then one day $150 was taken from her bank account and the account was frozen. It was all by court order from, of all places, the city of Fremont. Maria called to find out why.

"She said, 'Well when you got out of jail, you stopped paying.' It was like someone just pulled the rug out from under me. I lost it. I was like, 'I was arrested?' I screamed it out while I was at work," said Maria.

Maria had never been arrested, yet now there was a bench warrant for. While she frantically tried to find out why, she had no access to her money, no food, no gas, no insulin for her husband. She told her children to borrow money for lunch.

"I couldn't even look at them. I couldn't look at them when I told them I didn't have money," said Maria.

Her husband said his sugar levels shot dangerously high without insulin.

"It just happened to be at that time when I ran out of my medicine," said Maria's husband, Glean Duenas. "My fingers started tingling, 'Will I wake up in the morning? Will I be in the hospital?'"

It took weeks to figure out what was going on. Which leads back to Maria Jimenez, booked for assault, and the mistake.

"What we did amounted to a data entry error. We had a new system at the time, the jailer wasn't that familiar with it," said Fremont detective Bill Veteran.

Veteran explained when Jimenez was booked, 13 women with the same name popped up in the computer database. They included Maria Duenas because her maiden name was "Maria Jimenez."

By mistake, the jailer clicked on Maria Duenas' name. The real criminal was physically in jail, but all the blame went to the innocent Maria.

"It should have been checked. The jail tech should have looked and seen that the date of birth was different," said Veteran.

Maria didn't know she had someone else's criminal record and owed someone else's restitution. To prove she wasn't the convict, she had to go to her local sheriff's office. Deputies took her fingerprints. She wondered if they'd lock her up.

"I thought, 'Oh my god, if I don't come home, I have to make sure somebody picks up my kids from school,'" said Maria.

It took weeks to clear Maria's name and release her funds, but it had cost her time, anxiety, and money. She filed a $5,000 claim with the city of Fremont -- the city said, simply, "no."

"I said, 'What? You're joking, right?'" asked Maria. "You can't turn somebody's life around, upside down that way, and force somebody to have to look into their kids' eyes or be ashamed to look into their kids eyes."

The city said a government agency is immune from liability for this type of mistake.

ABC7 legal analyst Dean Johnson says that's true.

"In some cases like Mrs. Duenas' case, even though wrong may have been done, a suit can't be brought because the government's immune from suit," said Johnson.

"We're all human here and we do make mistakes. Unfortunately, this caused grief for someone who didn't deserve to have grief," said Veteran.

"I just wanted my own money back. That's all I wanted, was my own money back, for a crime I didn't commit," said Maria.

After reviewing Maria's case, the city of Fremont did pay her $726 for the time she spent unraveling the mess and her bank reimbursed overdraft fees.

Still, she has been stuck paying those payday loan fees.

The Fremont jail has re-trained workers to crosscheck information when booking criminals.


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