South Florida Cops Held Wrong Man in Jail for Six Days Even Though He Gave Them ID

Photo by Wendy / Flickr
Hugo Menjivar was simply trying to help a friend who couldn't drive home. Instead, he says, he ended up arrested by cops who demanded his license, ran his name through a database, and found a hit for a warrant in California.

The only problem: The warrant wasn't for Menjivar. And he says if the cops had bothered to look at his license or his social security card, which he also handed over, they quickly would have noticed their mistake. Instead, Menjivar says he sat in jail for six days — without a court hearing — before police realized they'd messed up and sent him home.

"You have all this information right in front of you, and it takes you six days to realize your mistake? Really?" says Rogell Levers, Menjivar's attorney. "You have his license, you have his social security card and everything, and yet this still happens?"

Menjivar's nightmarish run-in with Florida's justice system began October 30, 2014, when his friend Rolando called from South Palm Beach — a town about six miles south of Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago on the same barrier island — and asked for help getting his car home because he couldn't drive.

Menjivar, who is now 50 years old and lives nearby, hopped into his car and came to the rescue. When he got there, though, he found that two South Palm Beach cops had seized his friend in an unrelated incident. Menjivar explained he'd simply come to help his buddy, but the officers also demanded his license.

The cops radioed into their headquarters — which shares a dispatcher with the town of Lantana on the mainland — and, to Menjivar's shock, they returned a few minutes later and slapped handcuffs on him. They told the incredulous Menjivar, who had no criminal record and had never even been to the West Coast, that he was wanted in California and would be held in jail pending an extradition hearing.

Menjivar says he still figured it would be easy enough to sort out the confusion. When he got to Palm Beach County Jail, he handed over his wallet, which included his social security card, his bank cards, and multiple other forms of ID.

But Menjivar thought wrong. He says he sat in the jail cell for six whole days, never even getting a day in court in front of a judge, who is supposed to rule on out-of-state warrants to decide whether extradition is appropriate.

"They never even brought him out for a first appearance, which is very strange," Levers says.

Finally, just short of a week in custody, Menjivar was abruptly freed and handed a bus pass to find his way home.

Only later was he able to sort out what had happened: The man with the California warrant was known as Francisco Menjivar, although his real name was Petronilo Armijo. Even worse, his birthday was a full year earlier than Menjivar's, and he had a different social security number; the man had also been previously booked, so police had a photo of him on file they could have consulted.

Menjivar soon learned his own mug shot had been plastered across the internet while he'd been held in Palm Beach County Jail. He also missed days of work while incarcerated. 

Menjivar has filed a federal lawsuit against the towns of South Palm Beach and Lantana, as well as the two officers who arrested him, alleging they breached their duties by failing to properly check the warrant from California and Menjivar's IDs.

"They all screwed up in this case," Levers says. "The booking sheets make it very clear that they had his IDs the entire time, and they just messed this one up."

The police chiefs of South Palm Beach and Lantana didn't immediately respond to messages from New Times about the lawsuit. Generally, police don't comment on open litigation.
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink