Breastfeeding Mom Arrested in Mistaken Identity

ByABC News

Aug. 26, 2005 — -- Colorado police are investigating a woman's complaint about how she was ordered to stop nursing her baby, thrown against her family car with her blouse still open, and taken away to jail in handcuffs in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.

"I'm in shock," said the woman's husband, Ricky Archuleta, describing the incident. "The baby's screaming. The kids start crying and screaming and I don't know what to do. I actually don't know what I said. I said something, and he [the state trooper] just yelled in the car and said, 'You need to be silent.' "

The June 12 arrest stemmed from a case of mistaken identity by police, and charges against Mercedes Archuleta have been dropped.

But the mother, who wound up spending a night in jail, recently told John Ferrugia of ABC News Denver affiliate KMGH-TV that she was terrified and humiliated by police mistakes and rough treatment.

"I thought I was going to get sick," Mercedes Archuleta said. "I felt like I was going to faint. I was humiliated because I was there with this stranger, and here I am with my blouse undone and he didn't give me a chance to tie it up. And I was just so worried for my baby."

Maj. Jim Wolfinbarger of the Colorado State Patrol said the agency is investigating the arresting officer, who he declined to name, over Mercedes Archuleta's allegations about the treatment she received as she was arrested.

"Any of those allegations involving inappropriate uses of force, or the trooper's demeanor being inconsistent with the policies of this agency, those are being looked into," Wolfinbarger said.

However, he added, Archuleta's arrest itself was proper given the existence of an erroneous arrest warrant initiated by another department.

"From a trooper's standpoint out on the road," he said, "when you have a state-issued license from a person in the vehicle, and you have a warrant that is confirmed valid … the individual -- it's under the order of a judge -- will be taken to a jail."

It all began when the Archuletas were pulled over during a routine traffic stop June 12.

Ricky Archuleta expected a ticket, but was surprised when one of two troopers at the scene told him -- apparently because of another error in police records -- that he couldn't even drive.

"He ran my license," Ricky Archuleta said. "He came back and said it had been rescinded for an unpaid traffic ticket. I knew I had paid the ticket."

The officer said Mercedes Archuleta would have to take over driving, the Archuletas said. While the trooper checked her license, she nursed her baby in the front seat.

But suddenly the officer was at the car's door, according to Ricky Archuleta.

"He said, 'Take the baby from your wife,' I said, 'Why?' He goes, 'Take the baby from your wife, now,' " the man said.

"I took the baby off and started to cover up a little bit," Mercedes Archuleta said. "When I started to step out of the car, … he grabbed my left arm, put it in back of me, cuffed me and then I was thrown against the car. And my kids were crying."

"Her blouse is undone," Ricky Archuleta said. "And all my kids see her just up against [the car]. Immediately, they're like, 'What are they doing? What are they doing to Mom?' "

"I turned to him and said, 'Excuse me, why am I being arrested?' And he goes, 'You need to be silent,'" Mercedes said. "He said, 'There's a warrant for your arrest.' I said, 'No, there's a mistake.' I said, 'There's no warrant for my arrest. … I've never been in trouble for anything in my life.' "

"He was rude," Ricky Archuleta said. "I think he was overzealous."

But the Colorado State Patrol has yet to reach the same conclusion.

"At least initially, there appears to be no misconduct on behalf of the troopers," Wolfinbarger said.

At the Jefferson County Jail, Mercedes Archuleta said she was strip-searched before it became clear to officers that she didn't match the description of a suspect who had tattoos and scars. She had neither.

"She [the female officer] says, 'I know this isn't you,' " Mercedes Archuleta said. "And I said, 'Can you call someone? Can they release me?' She said, 'Nope, I can't do that.' "

Jim Shires, a spokesman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, said it is standard procedure to remove the street clothes of incoming inmates to dress them in prison garb, and that officials at the jail cannot release an inmate until a sentence is completed or a court order is obtained.

The Archuletas were unaware of what apparently got Mercedes arrested -- sloppy work by the Lakewood Police Department.

"We know that there was a grievous error made, and that this woman was traumatized," said Stacie Oulton, a Lakewood police spokeswoman. "We have tried to do all we can to rectify this situation."

The mistake occurred because a Lakewood detective investigating the case of a suspect named Phyllis Rivera, wanted in an alleged domestic violence dispute, issued an arrest warrant under an alias Rivera had used -- Mercedes Archuleta.

"This woman was the victim of identity theft," Oulton said of the real Mercedes Archuleta. "There is someone who is using her name as an alias. That shows up in the databases used by law enforcement."

Oulton added that the detective erred in not checking out whether Archuleta was, in fact, the wanted woman before issuing the warrant.

"She should have attempted to call [the real] Mercedes Archuleta," Oulton said. "If she had done that, she would have found that this was not the woman she was looking for."

What's more, the detective never pulled a photo of either person to verify identity, Lakewood Division Chief Clarene Shelley told KMGH-TV in Denver.

"She just pulled my name up because I was the only one she could find about my age," Mercedes Archuleta said.

While the police department has admitted its mistake and offered to meet with the family to apologize personally, Mercedes has declined. She said she is embarrassed and humiliated.

"If [the detective] had to spend a day in jail like I did and be scared, not knowing what's going to happen, and have her family crying and worried about her, then I think she would understand where I'm coming from," Mercedes Archuleta said.

The Lakewood officer involved has been reprimanded, but not suspended.

The Colorado State Patrol continues its internal investigation of the conduct and procedures of the trooper who made the arrest.

"It's a regrettable set of circumstances," Wolfinbarger said. "It really truly is. Any time this happens, that somebody is taken to jail with what at this time appears to be information that is incorrect, it's regrettable."

Meanwhile, Lakewood police and the city attorney have initiated steps to remove the arrest and any mention of the innocent woman from public records.

But that has not yet been successful. Mercedes' arrest remained listed on the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's database, KMGH-TV reported.

John Ferrugia of ABC News affiliate KMGH-TV in Denver and ABC News' Michael S. James in New York contributed to this report.

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