A Black man spent six days in jail in Nevada because police misidentified him as a convicted White felon who is more than twice his age, according to a federal lawsuit filed against the police departments of Henderson and Las Vegas.
Shane Lee Brown is now asking for at least $500,000 in damages.
Brown, 25, had finished work on January 8, 2020, and was driving in Henderson, Nevada – 14 miles outside of Las Vegas – when Henderson City Police officers pulled him over, the lawsuit, filed in US District Court of Nevada, details.
It was a routine traffic stop for driving an unregistered vehicle, the Henderson Police Department told CNN in a statement Monday.
Brown, who is Black, did not have his driver’s license but instead gave police his name, Social Security number and Social Security card, the lawsuit said. He acknowledged to police he had a traffic violation-related warrant, his attorney later told CNN, and had a court date scheduled for the following day.
But after a records check under Brown’s name, a felony warrant for another man named Shane Brown appeared, the lawsuit said. Though the two shared the same first and last name, police did not check for their middle names, the color of their skin and date of birth, according to the lawsuit. Shane Neal Brown, 49, had an outstanding felony bench warrant for ownership or possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, records show.
Despite the differences, Lee Brown was arrested and spent six days in jails at two Las Vegas-area jurisdictions – Henderson Detention Center and Clark County Detention Center, the lawsuit said.
Neal Brown, meanwhile, was arrested two days after the traffic stop that put Lee Brown in jail. According to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, Neal Brown was arrested in Needles, California, on January 10, 2020, and released to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police on January 22, 2020.
Shannon Phenix, the public defender assigned to Neal Brown’s case, said Lee Brown was released on January 14, 2020.
For four days, both men were in jail at the same time, across state lines.
CNN has reached out to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, but it declined to comment on pending litigation.
Henderson Police maintain Lee Brown was “correctly arrested by Henderson Police for driving with a suspended license and for a contempt of court, failure to pay warrant issued by Henderson Municipal Court,” according to statement to CNN.
“Mr. Brown admitted to the arresting officers that he knew his driver license was suspended and that he had traffic warrants in Henderson,” the statement continued.
“That might have been true,” Phenix, the public defender, told CNN. “But he would have only been held at the jail on his traffic warrants and he would have been out of custody in two days, and he would have bail set on those warrants.”
Lee Brown did not get to see a judge within 48 hours as the law requires, since the man he was mistaken for had an ongoing case, and police and jail believed they had the correct person. In fact, he didn’t get to see a judge at all, Phenix told CNN.
Phenix said she wasn’t even notified that an arrest had been made under her case with Neal Brown, because Lee Brown was booked under a separate ID number – “which is a concern because that means the jail knew it wasn’t the same person, because they took fingerprints, but they still had him held on the warrant,” Phenix said.
Instead, she got a call from the panicked mother of Lee Brown, who contacted her and asked for her help getting her son out of jail.
In the meantime, while in custody, Lee Brown repeatedly tried to explain to Henderson Police officers that he was not the 49-year-old Shane Neal Brown who was wanted on a felony warrant.
“It felt like every word I said was falling on deaf ears. No one gave me the time of day, or even listened to what I was trying to explain to them,” Lee Brown told CNN.
His protests went ignored for days. “Most of the time I didn’t even get a response,” he said, adding that at the time, he didn’t know the other Shane Brown was White.
“I didn’t know what race the guy was, I knew roughly his age because I had seen the birth year, but other than that, I just tried to tell them there’s no way this is me.”
Lee Brown didn’t get to see what Neal Brown looked like because he wasn’t brought to court for the January 14 hearing.
“So because they had different ID numbers, the jail was like, well, that’s not the right individual, so they didn’t bring him to court,” Phenix explained.
Since she couldn’t show the judge her client, Phenix brought mug shots of both men to the Eighth Judicial District Court in Clark County, and pointed out Shane Lee Brown’s didn’t match the original photo of the elder Brown, telling the judge police had arrested the wrong person. Judge Joe Hardy Jr. then ordered Lee Brown to be released immediately.
Once he was released, Lee Brown looked up Shane Neal Brown, and found a booking photo that looked nothing like him.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was in disbelief, shocked, angered, upset, hurt,” he told CNN.
“Had any of the LVMPD police or corrections officers performed any due diligence, such as comparing his booking photo against the existing mug shot belonging to the older, white ‘Shane Brown’ named in the warrant, comparing his fingerprints, birth date, ID No., or physical description, they would have easily determined that Shane Lee Brown has been misidentified as the subject of the warrant,” the lawsuit states.
When asked why Lee Brown, once arrested, was charged with the crimes of Neal Brown, Henderson police said, “the circumstances will be further addressed in the City Attorney’s response to the court.”
The attorney now representing Lee Brown in the suit, E. Brent Bryson, said the police failed his client when they did not further investigate his claim of mistaken identity.
“It’s their duty to know, and if they hear it a hundred times, so be it. It doesn’t matter if they hear it all the time. They need to do their investigation, their due diligence and act appropriately,” Bryson told CNN.
“The law says (this) rises to a level of deliberate indifference and that’s what happened here. They just didn’t care. They just didn’t do anything.”
Christopher Peterson, a former public defender who briefly represented Neal Brown in the past and now works for the Nevada chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the entire system failed Lee Brown on multiple levels.
“You have the arresting warrant that’s claiming that this felony warrant applies to Shane Lee Brown, when in fact that’s not accurate. So that’s the first failing,” Peterson said.
Then, Peterson said, Lee Brown went to booking at Henderson Detention Center.
“You have a records department at every facility that’s double-checking and making sure the records line up,” He said. “Those people would have potentially had access to paperwork to determine whether this the right guy.”
While at Henderson, “anytime he would have said something, anyone, his officers, could have thrown a flag up and said, ‘Hey, we have the wrong person,’” Peterson said.
Then there were the transporting officers who took Lee Brown to the Clark County Detention Center. “Presumably, they would have had some paperwork that would have told them whether or not they had the right guy for the warrant, to make sure they bring the right person over.”
Once at Clark County, Lee Brown was booked again, and again the mistaken identity was not flagged. “Then you have the officers there supervising over the Clark County Detention Center,” Peterson said, and those officers also did not check to see whether Lee Brown’s claims of mistaken identity were true.
Then, come the day of the hearing, Lee Brown isn’t brought to court. “That that is a clear red flag. There’s a problem when your description is so far off, you can’t figure out who to bring to the courtroom. That’s a serious issue. And yet somehow it’s on the public defender to talk to the judge and say, Judge, they have the wrong person. It should never have gotten to that point.”