Judges sides with government in mistaken imprisonment lawsuit

Ricky Ortega
Ricky Ortega

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - A man who was thrown in jail for a crime he didn't commit is on the losing end of a legal battle over being wrongly imprisoned. His case took more than a year and a half to settle and let Louisville Metro Corrections and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement off the hook. The the investigation into what happened is prompting change.

After Ricky Ortega was wrongly imprisoned he said he would fight to hold those responsible for the mistake, accountable.

"My fear is this happening again to an innocent person," Ortega said in April 2011.

But a nine page ruling by United States District Court Judge John G. Heyburn determined no one is to blame for what happened to Ortega.

In March 2011, Louisville Metro corrections officers showed up at Ortega's home. They said US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, suspected he was in the country illegally and put a detainer on him. The problem is Ortega was born and raised in Houston and is a US citizen.

Still, Metro Corrections officers took Ortega to jail where he sat for four days until a corrections officer finally spoke with ICE and discovered it was a case of mistaken identity. Ice said Ortega's name and date of birth were close to an actual illegal immigrant that had been deported from Louisville. When an ICE agent spotted Ortega's name in a corrections database, he put a detainer on Ortega just in case.

Metro Corrections then took Ortega into custody, which at that time was department policy, according to Director Mark Bolton.

"That's been the long standing practice," Bolton said in April 2011. "It's not based on law, it was based on policy."

Five months later, Ortega sued Bolton, the Metro Corrections officers that arrested him, and the ICE agent that put the detainer on him.

After a series of legal twists and turns the case landed in US Federal Court and 20 months after Ricky Ortega was wrongly imprisoned, Judge Heyburn ruled on whether or not he could hold anybody legally responsible.

"Dismissal based on qualified immunity is proper if the official was unaware that his or her conduct was clearly unlawful," Judge Heyburn wrote.

After reviewing the facts, Heyburn decided the ICE officer who put the detainer on Ortega was within his rights.

"Qualified immunity shields government officials who make objectively reasonable mistakes in discretionary decisions within the scope of their responsibilities," Heyburn wrote.

He said the same is true of Metro Corrections officials, who the judge said "had no reason to believe the detainer was incorrect" and "could have reasonably believed their conduct was lawful."

"Unfortunately, mistakes happen," Heyburn wrote. "However, the circumstances in this case do not rise to the level of constitutional violations for which the plaintiff pursues claims."

In a statement, Ortega said he is disappointed but understands the Judge Heyburn's decision.

"I still feel very strongly that processes need to change so this does not happen again and be looked at as an honest mistake," Ortega wrote.

Director Bolton also issued a statement that said "we are pleased with the court's decision in this matter."

"Good people make honest mistakes all the time," Bolton wrote. "As much as everyone will try to avoid these mistakes, and in fact Metro Corrections has taken steps to prevent similar occurrences, such a mistake may happen again."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement said the agency has now set up a 24 hours a day seven days a week toll-free hotline detained individuals can call if they believe they may be mistakenly imprisoned on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant. The hotline number is (855) 448-6903.

ICE officials say it is a resource that could have spared Ricky Ortega his four night jail stay.

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