01/17/2006

Former probation officer sues after mistaken ID get him jailed

By Dan Reed
Mercury News

Charles Alexander was a Santa Clara County probation officer for more than 25 years. He's seen that side of the law. Now he's seen the other.

In papers filed last week in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Alexander claims the county -- his former employer -- wrongly threw him in jail for three days last year in a case of mistaken identity. He wants $25,000, or about $347 an hour, for his stay in county accommodations.

He's no criminal, Alexander said. The police wanted his son, who's no criminal either, he said. In fact, Alexander, in court papers, defines himself as an upstanding citizen of San Jose, a Sunday School teacher and church usher for more than 20 years.

Maybe so, but the county says Alexander will get nothing. County attorneys are prepared to challenge his version of events before a judge. And a court transcript reviewed by the Mercury News casts doubt on the career probation officer's version of events.

It started, believe it or not, with the death of two sheep in March 1998.

In his lawsuit, Alexander said his son's dogs killed his neighbor's sheep. Animal control officers took the dogs and ordered that a fence be built to keep them contained.

At some point, Alexander's lawsuit says, he or his son paid the neighbors for the loss of the sheep.

Then came a July 7, 1998, court date to answer the citation for letting the dogs run loose. Alexander said the judge dismissed the case, erasing the need for a scheduled July 21 hearing on the matter.

``I did not fail to appear in court on July 21, because the case was dismissed July 7,'' Alexander wrote.

Apparently not. A bench warrant was issued.

Then last January, six years later, Alexander was pulled over for a broken taillight. The officer saw the outstanding bench warrant and tossed him in jail for three days.

``It shocks the conscience that a long-time resident and peace officer would be held for such an extended period of time on the basis of an outdated warrant,'' his attorney wrote in the lawsuit.

Alexander and his attorney, Caren Sencer of Alameda, contend the system erred in two ways: they had the wrong man (Alexander's son owned the dogs), and the case had been dismissed.

Mark Bernal, deputy county counsel for Santa Clara County, sees things differently.

The officer who issued the citation for the dogs quotes Alexander as saying they were owned by him as well as his son.

The record also shows Alexander first missed a court date in April 1998, and the court issued a $5,000 bench warrant. He got that cleared up, but when he missed the July 21 court date, the judge issued a $10,000 bench warrant, upon which Alexander was arrested last year.

After his three days in jail, the case was dismissed by the district attorney's office.

In any event, the transcript of the July 7 hearing shows Alexander pleaded not guilty to the citation. The last line of the transcript quotes the judge as saying: ``Matter will be set for pretrial conference on July the 21st at 1:30 in this department, so return at that time.''

Doesn't exactly sound like a dismissal.

Alexander declined to be interviewed. Bernal is perplexed. He said the county has no reason to believe it owes its former employee $25,000.

``Hopefully,'' Bernal said this week, ``I'll hear back as to why they thought this case was dismissed against him.''

San Jose Mercury News (http://www.mercurynews.com/)

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