Man Held in Hawaii for More Than 2 Years Over Mistaken Identity Sues the State

Joshua Spriestersbach, who was arrested in 2017 in Honolulu after a police officer mistook him for a man with an outstanding warrant, was held by the state for 32 months, his lawyers said.,


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A man was forced to spend more than two years in a psychiatric hospital, where he was medicated until he became “catatonic,” an ordeal that began after the police in Hawaii mistook him for another person wanted for a crime, according to a federal lawsuit.

Joshua Spriestersbach, 50, was homeless in May 2017 and fell asleep outside a shelter in Honolulu, where he had been waiting in line to get food. An officer woke him up and arrested him on a warrant for a crime he had not committed.

It was the third time in six years that the police in Honolulu had confused Mr. Spriestersbach for another man who was wanted on drug-related charges.

But this time, Mr. Spriestersbach would spend 32 months in state custody, four of them in a jail in Oahu and 28 in a psychiatric hospital where doctors and psychologists refused to believe he was not the man the police said he was.

Instead, medical officials at Hawai’i State Hospital “determined him to be delusional and decompensating, and recommended more medication be administered to Joshua against his will,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Honolulu on Sunday and was reported by The Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

They then “got a court order to administer strong anti-psychotic medication that caused Joshua much physical and emotional anguish,” the lawsuit says.

The case drew widespread attention in August when his lawyers filed a court petition seeking to clear his name and vacate his 2017 arrest.

Mr. Spriestersbach, who now lives in Vermont with his sister, is still identified by the wrong name in Hawaii’s criminal database, meaning he could be arrested again if he ever returns, said one of his lawyers, Alphonse A. Gerhardstein.

“He’s deathly afraid,” Mr. Gehardstein said in an interview on Tuesday. “It’s outrageous that the officials there have not cleared up this warrant.”

Officials with the state attorney general’s office and the hospital did not immediately respond to messages for comment.

In a statement, Rade Vanic, the interim chief of the Honolulu Police Department, said the agency was “reviewing department policies and procedures to determine if changes are needed.”

“We are also continuing to work with city attorneys to fully investigate and address the allegations in the lawsuit,” he said.

At every point, Mr. Spriestersbach was let down by the state’s criminal justice and health care systems, the complaint says. The police failed to do basic checks that would have shown they had arrested the wrong man, and the lawyers assigned to represent him did not believe him. Instead, public defenders asked for psychiatric evaluations, according to the lawsuit.

The combined actions of the criminal justice and health care systems “were rooted in an abuse of power of authority and were undertaken negligently and with disregard for the probability that they would cause Joshua severe emotional distress,” according to the complaint.

The state public defender’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the state’s Department of Public Safety, which runs the Oahu Community Correctional Center, where Mr. Spriestersbach was briefly held, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Mr. Spriestersbach, whose family says he has schizophrenia, wants his lawsuit to lead to changes in Hawaii that would ensure that homeless people and those with mental illness are treated justly, Mr. Gerhardstein said.

The confusion over Mr. Spriestersbach’s identity began in October 2011 when he fell asleep in the stairwell of a middle school in Honolulu. A police officer woke him up and asked him his name.

Mr. Spriestersbach gave his grandfather’s last name, Castleberry, according to the lawsuit. When the police entered the name into their database, a warrant for Thomas R. Castleberry appeared. Mr. Castleberry, who is not related to Mr. Spriestersbach and has never met him, had apparently left Hawaii in 2009, according to the lawsuit.

“Castleberry” remained in the police computer system as an alias for Mr. Spriestersbach. He was stopped again while he was sleeping in a public park in 2015, but the officers let him go after they took his fingerprints and found they did not match Mr. Castleberry’s. Still, the officers did not correct the department’s records, according to the complaint.

On May 11, 2017, Mr. Spriestersbach fell asleep on a sidewalk as he waited for food outside a shelter in Honolulu. Mr. Spriestersbach, who did not have identification, gave the officers his full name, birth date and Social Security number, according to the lawsuit. The officers arrested him, this time without doing a fingerprint comparison, the lawsuit says.

At the hospital, Mr. Spriestersbach protested when he was forced to attend group sessions for drug users, and employees responded by giving him antipsychotic medications that made him drool and struggle to walk, according to the petition and to Vedanta Griffith, his sister.

In November 2019, one of his psychiatrists obtained his birth certificate and realized that Mr. Spriestersbach was who he said he was, according to the petition filed in August.

The hospital released him on Jan. 17, 2020, with 50 cents, two copies of his birth certificate and other documents. He was then driven back to the same shelter where he had been arrested and was reunited with his sister after he called his family.

“These people have no heart,” Ms. Griffith said in a statement.

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