Seventy-year-old Sheila Brown was arrested, held at police headquarters for nearly four hours, and charged with two misdemeanors — for the crime, it turned out, of having the same name as a different woman 20 years her junior with an outstanding warrant.
Brown was the one calling the cops for help in the first place.
A state court judge immediately dismissed Brown’s case as an example of mistaken identity. Now she is preparing a complaint to file with the internal affairs division of the city’s police department, which she and her lawyer said needs to be more sensitive to how it treats African-American suspects.
Brown, a retired postal worker and former martial arts teacher, has lived in the Fairmont Heights public housing complex on Fairmont Avenue in the Annex for the last 12 years.
According to state court records, police records, a June 4 written statement provided by Brown to her attorney Michael Jefferson, and an hour-long Tuesday morning interview with the Independent at Brown’s apartment, Brown was the victim of mistaken identity by the New Haven police.
Brown, who has limited mobility due to a spate of recent surgeries, said she felt humiliated and upset by the whole encounter. She said she had never before been mistaken by the police or by anyone else for being a different Sheila Brown.
Outside of a 2013 conviction of conspiracy to commit larceny in the fourth degree, Brown has no criminal record. She said the only other time in recent memory that she had called the police was to help resolve a dispute with a neighbor over the use of their apartment complex’s garden hose.
She said her experience with the police last Thursday led her to believe that young officers need more and better training on how to read and act on outstanding arrest warrants.
“If I live to be 109 years old,” Brown said with tears in her eyes, “I’ll never forget that day.”
Police Chief Anthony Campbell said that while the officer may not have violated department rules, he had other options— like calling a supervisor to help straighten out the situation.
“If you’ve got a woman who’s between 50 and 70,” and the warrant involves a misdemeanor, Campbell told the Independent, “do you really want to take the chance you’re arresting the wrong person? Let’s get our heads together. Let’s get a supervisor on the scene or a lieutenant.
“It’s important that we do everything in our power to make sure we’re not arresting the wrong person,” Campbell said. “We could always issue a summons for the person to come to court, or take the person’s information and do additional investigation and make sure we have the right person. It’s not always about grabbing the right person right there.”
He noted that with many retirements in recent years, “We’ve got a young police department that with proper supervision could avoid scenarios like this if they get a supervisor on scene and they work together to come up with a reasonable solution.”
Attorney Jefferson argued that a white woman would never have received similar treatment that Sheila Brown received. He called the case an example of “how African-Americans are devalued in our society.”
According to court records, the police have not yet apprehended the other Sheila Brown, who does have a warrant out for her arrest.
“I Felt Like A Piece Of Garbage”
Brown’s story began on Thursday, May 31, just after 5 p.m. as she and her stepfather Calvin Tate were driving home from picking up a loaf of raisin cinnamon bread at Panera Bread on Boston Post Road in Milford.
While she was on Old Orange Avenue in West Haven, Brown said, a driver sideswiped the left side of her car and then kept on driving. She said she and Tate felt the impact but didn’t know the extent of the damage. She said she followed the driver, flashing her lights and honking her horn to signal him to pull over. About five minutes later, both cars did pull to the side of the road on Davenport Avenue in New Haven, near the intersection of Congress Avenue and Ella T. Grasso Boulevard.
Brown said she was and is still recovering from spinal surgery that took place in January and from a second knee replacement that took place in 2015. Although she had been driving, she asked her stepfather to get out of the car and talk with the other driver. She said she didn’t want to aggravate her knee and back pain by getting up and sitting down repeatedly.
She said the other driver offered his car insurance. Brown noticed that her mirror was scuffed. She decided to call the police to help mediate.
According to the subsequent arrest warrant, the officer who responded to Brown’s call was Officer Justiano Nieves. According to Brown, Nieves asked for her license, registration, and insurance, which Brown provided.
He said by protocol he had to check Brown’s name to see if there were any outstanding warrants for her arrest.
“You don’t have to worry,” Brown recalled telling the officer. “I’m a good person. I don’t have no warrants. … I don’t get into trouble.”
Much to her surprise, the police did have a warrant out for Sheila Brown’s arrest. At least, Nieves said, there was an arrest out for some city resident named Sheila Brown for two misdemeanors, third degree assault and second degree breach of the peace, that she allegedly committed during an altercation with her boyfriend Wesley on March 9.
“This is not me,” Brown recalled thinking as Nieves listed the charges.
Brown said she pointed out to the officer that her birthdate, as listed on her driver’s license, was Feb. 19, 1948. The birthdate of the Sheila Brown with the outstanding warrant was Feb. 19, 1968. Brown said the actual suspect was 20 years younger than her.
Furthermore, she said, her boyfriend is not named Wesley. His name is Miguel. He lives in a separate apartment in Fairmont Heights. They’ve been happily and peaceably together for seven years, she said.
She said that she spent three weeks at Willows Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Woodbridge after her Jan. 25 spinal surgery at the St. Raphael’s campus of Yale-New Haven Hospital. By early March, the time that the alleged misdemeanors were committed, she said she was still housebound at her apartment, barely able to walk as she continued to recover from her surgery.
Officers Nieves insisted that he had the right Sheila Brown.
According to Nieves’ arrest report, filed at 6:17 p.m. on May 31, he had “normal police contact with Sheila Brown (02-19-48)” earlier in the afternoon. He wrote that Brown had called the police to report a motor vehicle accident, and that he had discovered a “hard copy warrant” out for Brown’s arrest for the charges of second-degree Breach of Peace and third-degree Assault while conducting a warrant protective order check on all parties present.
The description of the Sheila Brown with the outstanding warrant, furthermore, was not too dissimilar to the appearance of the Brown he found himself face to face with on May 31.
On March 9, Officer Cesar Gutierrez, the lead investigator into the alleged crimes committed by the younger Sheila Brown, filed a Reporting Officer Narrative in which he describes Brown as “a black female, brown hair and brown eyes, approximately 5’09”, 140 lbs.” His report lists Brown as living at 46 Willis St., and as having the birthdate of Feb. 19, 1968.
But in a supplemental report filed by Gutierrez on April 4, the investigator changed the birthdate on Brown’s warrant.
“On 03/10/18,” he wrote, “I submitted an arrest warrant for Sheila Brown with the DOB 02/19/68. While speaking to IS-6, they stated Sheila Brown date of birth is really 02/19/48.”
The warrant for the other Sheila Brown also included a description with some similarities to the appearance of the older Sheila Brown.
Despite the confusion in the case log, the 70-year-old Brown said Officer Nieves told her during their encounter that the police department’s arrest warrant was for a Sheila Brown born in 1968. Who, she said, he believed she was.
He asked her to get out of the car and handcuffed her, and helped her into the back of his police car, according to Brown.
“I felt like a piece of garbage,” Brown said. She said she felt nervous because she knew the police had the wrong person, and embarrassed because people driving by looking out their car windows must have thought she was a criminal.
Nieves let her make a phone calll She called her 48-year-old daughter Ophelia, who lives on County Street. Ophelia and her husband came to the site of the arrest and tried to convince Nieves that he had the wrong Sheila Brown.
Nieves persisted that he had the right one despite the discrepancy between the birthdate on her license and the birthdate on the warrant. He said he needed a female officer present to pat down Brown and to see if she had any weapons on her.
Ultimately, Brown said, around five or six officers came to the scene.
The officers helped Brown out of the back of the police car, the female officers patted her down, and found no weapons. Brown said she became more and more upset as the arrest progressed. She said she pleaded with the officers to proofread the warrant to learn that they had the wrong suspect.
The officers persisted. Nieves said that Brown would have to be sent to the police headquarters at 1 Union Ave. to be processed. He said she would have to be transported to Union Avenue in the back of a prisoner transport wagon.
Rebuked “By The Blood Of Jesus”
“I was almost incoherent,” Brown said about how upset she was. She said her stepfather was crying from the front seat of their car, and that her daughter and her daughter’s husband were “going bananas.”
“It was wrong,” Tate said about the police officers’ treatment of Brown. “They had no business doing that.”
She said she couldn’t lift her knee to get into the wagon, so three officers picked her up and put her in the back of the car.
She said she got to Union Avenue a little before 6 p.m. She said she had to remove her jewelry and relinquish her cane as she was placed in the department’s holding cell.
For the next four hours, she said, she stood leaning against the wall of the holding cell, not daring to sit down on the bench in the cell out of fear that she wouldn’t be able to get up again without her cane present.
At around a quarter to 10 p.m., she said, officers retrieved her from the cell and took her finger prints.
She said she told the officer taking her finger prints that they had the wrong Sheila Brown. “There’s nothing we can do,” she recalled the officer saying.
“I rebuke all of this by the blood of Jesus,” she recalled shouting as she was being processed. She said she was so upset that she started speaking in tongues, as if she were at church and the Holy Spirit had taken hold of her.
After the officers had taken her fingerprints, filled out the necessary paperwork, and given her a court date for the following day, she said she was taken to a room where she met up with her daughter Ophelia, who was with a bail bondsman. Ophelia had paid the $250 necessary on Brown’s $2,5000 bond. Ophelia informed her that the police had towed her car. She went straight to Fountain’s Garage on Stiles Street, where she remembered $93.58 for its release.
She said she got back to her Fairmont Heights apartment at around 11 p.m., nearly six hours after she had first called the police about the car accident from earlier in the day.
Wesley ... Snipes?
On Friday, June 1 at 10 a.m., Brown and her stepfather went to the New Haven Superior Court at 121 Elm St. She said a court clerk directed her to the family court in courtroom B, presided over by Judge Walter Spader.
Once she found the right court room, she remembered a prosecutor pulling her aside and asking her questions about her case. She responded again and again that she was innocent, and that they had the wrong Sheila Brown.
She said the prosecutor asked him about her alleged encounter with her boyfriend Wesley. “I know Wesley from TV,” she remembered responding. “Wesley Snipes. That’s the only Wesley I know.”
“The prosecutors after speaking with Ms. Brown immediately recognized the obvious difference in the birth years and determined that Ms. Brown was telling the truth,” reads a June 4 written statement provided by Brown to her lawyer Michael Jefferson. “She was not subject of the warrant. The judge subsequently dismissed the charges.”
The Superior Court information sheet for Brown’s case simply lists “Mistaken Identity” as the reason Judge Spader dismissed the case.
Even though the prosecutors had pushed to drop the case, Brown insisted that she wanted to make her case before the judge himself. She said she told the judge what had happened to her, and that he apologized for what she had gone through.
Brown said a court stenographer made sure that Brown had copies of all of the relevant court and police files from her case, and then introduced her to Attorney Michael Jefferson, who was also in the courthouse on Friday. She said she met with Jefferson on Monday, gave him a five-page, double-sided account of everything that had happened to her.
Jefferson said he plans to file a complaint with the police department’s internal affairs division on behalf on Brown. He said it is too early to know whether or not he will file any other legal actions, but he is considering it.
“This is something that has to be brought to the attention of the police brass,” he told the Independent. “I just thought it was egregious on the part of the officer [Nieves] and all of the other officers who were associated with it.” He said he couldn’t believe that not one officer stepped forward and insisted that this 70-year-old woman was not the same as the 50-year-old woman with the outstanding warrant.
“For me,” he said, “it speaks to how African-Americans are devalued in our society. I don’t think this would have happened to a white woman. I just don’t believe that.” He said, if Brown was a white women from Morris Cove or the East Shore rather than from a public housing complex in Fair Haven, she would have been given more consideration by the officers.
He said there was no good reason why the officers arrested, handcuffed, and brought Brown to 1 Union Ave. after the incident instead of simply issuing a summons for her appearance in court. Even if she were the Sheila Brown that matched the warrant, he said, the alleged crimes are just misdemeanors, not felonies.
“They need to be taught more,” Brown said about what she would like to see change at the police department so that what she had to go through does not happen again. “It all boils down to honesty,” she said. And, she noted, she didn’t think the officers involved were acting with the utmost honesty when they ignored her actual birthdate and insisted on arresting her.
Paul Bass contributed reporting to this story.