Tuesday, August 01, 2000

Police mix-up means cold cell

Mistaken identity costs woman freedom

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        While she was in Nairobi in July, Denison University instructor Kristen Smith studied a Kenyan musical and storytelling troupe for her World Music classes.

        But she can top any of the troupe's stories now.

        After flying back from Africa on July 10, Miss Smith was handcuffed at O'Hare airport and locked in a Cook County Jail cell for 27 hours by Chicago police on a Cincinnati warrant for credit card fraud.

        You've got the wrong woman, 27-year-old Miss Smith insisted, but the officer in charge of her holding cell merely sang the WKRP in Cincinnati theme song and teased her about being a college professor, she said Monday at her Granville, Ohio, office.

        Since, the Cincinnati Police Division has apologized for mixing up “Kristen” with the real suspect, “Kristin.” Miss Smith is considering suing the city for $3,100 in legal fees and expenses, plus pain and suffering.

        On Monday, the provost at Denison University extended her doctoral dissertation deadline from August until December.

        “A mistake is one thing,” said Miss Smith's attorney, Paul Laufman of Cincinnati. “This was simply sloppy police work. She was locked in one of the most notorious jails in the country for nearly two days — and she has never committed a crime in her life.”

        Miss Smith, who lives in Newark, Ohio, resided in Clifton last year while taking doctoral classes at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She was arrested on a warrant intended for a neighbor with a similar name.

        “Her arrest could have easily been avoided if the (Cincinnati) officers did what they were supposed to do,” Mr. Laufman said.

        Cincinnati police would not comment on the name and Social Security number mix-up that led to Miss Smith's night in the Cook County Jail.

        Miss Smith's nightmare began innocently enough: A Cincinnati detective was

        looking for a Kristin Smith, also formerly of Clifton, who is wanted for allegedly charging $3,000 on her boyfriend's company's credit card.

        At some point last year the detective did a Bureau of Motor Vehicles search for Kristin Smith, Mr. Laufman said. When the detective, who is no longer with Cincinnati police, found a Kristen Smith living on the same road police thought the suspect lived on, the detective entered all of Kristen Smith's information — including her physical description — on the arrest warrant.

        Flying into Chicago from Africa, Miss Smith, a classical flutist, was stopped at customs — random search, customs officials told her. After she waited 21/2 hours, Chicago police took her in an unmarked black car to jail.

        Miss Smith was put in a cell, alone, no bed, no pillow, just a cold concrete floor, she said. She did jumping jacks and sit-ups to stay warm, still stumped over why she was there.

        The next morning, she was put in a holding cell with 20 to 30 other women. Drug dogs sniffed them as the women put heads against the wall with palms twisted inside out. When one woman talked back, the officer in charge made all the women stand in the position for nearly an hour. The muscle soreness stayed with her for days, Miss Smith said.

        One woman, arrested on drug charges, was handcuffed to Miss Smith when they were taken to court. The woman vomited the entire time. Miss Smith was later told the woman was suffering from drug withdrawal symptoms and morning sickness.

        It was in the courtroom that someone finally corrected the error caused by the difference between an “i” and an “e.” The judge let Miss Smith pay a $5,000 bail, which her father, Kenneth Smith — a retired Louisiana State University philosophy professor who lives in Texas — had two hours to post.

        Police “were a lot nicer when they realized, "Uh-oh, we're going to get sued,'” Miss Smith said.

        When she finally made it home, insult added to her injury. Police had sent her bags home via FedEx, damaging two rare stringed instruments made of gourds bought in Kenya to show her classes.

        While Miss Smith and her attorney debate her chance of winning a suit against the city of Cincinnati, police are trying to figure where to place the blame for her ordeal.

        “This is Cincinnati's warrant, Cincinnati's mistake,” said Sgt. Cynthia Lance, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Police Department.

        Detective Ralph Unger, who is handling the case of Kristin Smith, could not be reached for comment.

        Mr. Laufman said Detective Unger has been extremely helpful since the error was discovered, but that doesn't take away the city's accountability.

        “Cities are generally immune to mistakes,” Mr. Laufman said. “But this goes beyond a mistake. The city showed total indifference to Miss Smith's rights. No amount of money can ever take away the memories of this experience.”


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