By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Just after 5:45 p.m. on Jan. 23, 2010, Chris Adrian Smith started a $1 DVD for his kids and entered the kitchen to fix dinner in preparation for a quiet Saturday night at home.
Then undercover Orange County sheriff's deputies, dressed in all black, surrounded his Aliso Viejo home.
At 5 feet 8 inches and 180 pounds, the 38-year-old Smith didn't strike an imposing figure, and he wasn't armed, at least not with anything lethal. With deputies banging on his door, the only thing Smith had to defend himself was locked in his car. He'd placed this special object there in anticipation that someday he'd come face-to-face with law enforcement.
The object wasn't a gun or a knife. It was a document. Well-intentioned people in the local criminal-justice system had assured him that if he showed deputies the court order that gave him immunity from arrest in a specific case, then officers would be smart enough to apologize for any inconvenience and skedaddle.
But, as it turned out, that assurance rested on the faulty assumption that the deputies who'd confront Smith could read and comprehend English.
When Smith answered his door that night, a deputy placed him under arrest, alleging he had not paid a $300 conviction fine for driving on a suspended license.
"I told him I have paperwork telling him he is wrong," Smith says. "I am not the right guy."
A deputy allowed one of Smith's sons to retrieve the document.
"He looks at it and says, 'This doesn't say anything,'" recalls Smith. "I said, 'Read it. It says not to arrest me because I am not the right guy. Somebody stole my identity.'"
Smith said the deputy looked frustrated by the document, though its contents were unambiguous. Orange County Court Commissioner Vickie Hix's July 1, 2009, order states, "Chris Adrian Smith with identifying information of Date of Birth [redacted by the Weekly], driver's license [redacted by the Weekly] and tattoo: a circle with hidden picture of Jesus is NOT THE SAME PERSON [the judge's emphasis] in [case #09CM02605] and [is] not to be arrested."
According to Smith, "The deputy reads the order again and declares, 'It says you are the guy to arrest.' He saw my driver's license, and I showed him my tattoo and said, 'See? It says don't arrest the guy with this tattoo.' He says, 'No, you're the guy.' I said, 'Please, I don't understand that. I am not the guy!'"
Smith had entered a nightmare.
"The deputy put me in handcuffs in front of my kids and took me to jail," he says. "I spent Saturday, Sunday and Monday locked up for something I didn't do, and the deputies should have known that."
Had deputies Gil Torres and Virgil Asuncion spent about 30 seconds checking the county's online court-records system, accessible in their county-provided vehicle, they could have verified the authenticity of Hix's order.
There is also this: The criminal using Smith's identity was easy to determine. I have no badge, gun, law-enforcement training or access to secret police databases, and I'm not responsible for arresting the right people, but it took me 15 minutes to obtain not only the guilty man's full name, date of birth and address, but also his picture.
You can't confuse Smith with Jose Guadalupe Caballero. Even at a glance, their faces and physiques are quite dissimilar. Caballero, 40, stands three or four inches taller, weighs at least 70 pounds more and has Dumbo-sized ear lobes.
(Attempts to get the deputies' explanation for the botched arrest failed after sheriff's officials refused to relay my interview requests.)
Smith landed inside the notorious Orange County Jail. Nobody cared about the court order he carried and, he says, deputies scowled at him after he mentioned that his ordeal was worthy of a lawsuit.
"They treated me like shit," Smith says. "This deputy orders me to bend over. He reaches into my pants and rips my underwear up. When he takes his hand out, he's holding a clump of my torn underwear. . . . It was painful."
He pleaded with another deputy to read Hix's order. He says, "That deputy gets up in my face and says, 'If you don't change your attitude, I'm going to fuck you up.'"
Smith still held out hope, showing yet another deputy the court order. He says that before that officer put him in a cell with five other inmates, he said, "You're a stupid ass."
Inmates told him to pick sides before a fight broke out.
"I told them that I didn't want to pick sides or fight because I shouldn't be locked up," he recalls. "I told them I was innocent, and they said, 'Yeah, right.'"
On Monday afternoon, Smith's 50-hour ordeal took another turn. He walked into a courtroom, and who did he see? Judge Hix.
"I didn't have to say anything," says Smith. "Judge Hix asked, 'Why are you here?' I said, 'Because they arrested me for that case.' She said, 'This really pisses me off. They disobeyed my order. You need to get an attorney and file a claim. This is not right.'"
Hix ordered Smith to be released. But deputies had other plans. They marched him back to a cell and left him there for another six hours.
"It was frustrating," he says. "It seems like deputies can do whatever they want."
Earlier this year, Smith hired Newport Beach attorney Joshua R. Stock to file a federal lawsuit. According to Stock, the deputies are guilty of making a false arrest and violating his client's constitutional rights. The county responded by hiring a private law firm, which maintained in a court filing that the deputies' actions were "in all respects reasonable, proper and legal."
According to records, Caballero recently used Smith's identity in a San Francisco-area crime. He remains at large. Incredibly, more than 750 days after Hix cleared Smith of Caballero's acts, the sheriff's department continues to list him as the fugitive.
Asks a soft-spoken Smith, "When will this end?"
A jury trial for Smith's lawsuit is scheduled for April 2012.
This column appeared in print as "This Isn't the Man You're Looking For: Chris Adrian Smith has a court order declaring he is not wanted for a specific crime. Deputies arrested him for it anyway."