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Two threaten to sue over arrests

Profile image for By Megan Gray
By Megan Gray

Two men are threatening to sue Denton County for being wrongfully arrested in what their lawyer says was caused by “sloppy police work.”

Scott Davenport, a Houston-area attorney, sent a demand letter to County Judge Mary Horn and the Denton County Sheriff’s Office earlier this month on behalf of Gary Lynn Herring of Amarillo and Louis Wayne Austin Jr. of Little Elm.

The letter states that Denton County and the Denton County Sheriff’s Office violated the men’s federal and state civil rights by unlawfully arresting and detaining them on warrants intended for someone else.

Davenport said he has handled police brutality and jail fatality cases in the past, but doesn’t recall having to defend “wrongful arrests based on screw-ups” before.

“It’s just sloppy police work,” Davenport said. “We have the right to demand respectful workmanship from law enforcement, including holding them accountable.”

Sheriff William Travis did not respond to a request for comment about the demand letter.

Sandi Brackeen, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said the department’s legal counsel recommended that no comment be made because of possible pending litigation.

Travis did, however, send an apology letter to Herring dated Jan. 17.

“It has come to my attention you were arrested in Randall County for a warrant that was not for you on January 6, 2014,” according to a copy of the letter provided to the Denton Record-Chronicle. “This was an honest mistake made by one of our employees that was corrected as soon as it came to the attention of my staff.”

Travis said in the letter that a “regrettable error” was made and the information for the warrant was “misidentified.” He asked Herring to accept his “sincerest apologies for any hardship this unfortunate incident may have caused.”

Horn also declined to comment.

Mistaken identity

Herring had just returned to his home in Amarillo from moving his daughter to Colorado on the evening of Jan. 5 when he was approached by two Randall County sheriff’s deputies while unpacking in his driveway.

Davenport said Herring was asked for his name and was presented with a felony arrest warrant out of Denton County for a crime committed Jan. 1.

“He was placed in handcuffs while his family and neighbors watched,” Davenport said during a recent telephone interview.

Herring was transported to the Randall County Jail, where he spent more than 17 hours behind bars.

The warrant for evading arrest or detention was dated and signed by a local justice of the peace on Jan. 3, 2013 — a year before the crime was allegedly committed, according to Denton County records.

According to the warrant, two men were stopped on Jan. 1, 2014, for running a red light at the intersection of Fort Worth Drive and the Interstate 35E service road. The driver opened his car door and fled the scene. A passenger remained in the vehicle and was detained.

The sheriff’s deputy found a cellphone in the front seat that the passenger said belonged to “Gary,” and the deputy reported that he used the phone and a Facebook profile to identify the driver, according to the warrant. An arrest warrant was then sought, according to the deputy’s sworn statement.

Davenport said checking a cellphone and a Facebook profile are poor ways to confirm an identity. He says the Amarillo man was not the driver of the vehicle, and the sheriff’s letter indicates the warrant was issued for a person with the same name.

Case mix-up

Austin was arrested in December in Denton County on a warrant for failure to appear in court. As of last week, Davenport said Austin had not received an apology letter from Travis.

An open records request to the Denton County Sheriff’s Office from the Denton Record-Chronicle is still pending.

Davenport said Austin was in the process of being charged with misdemeanor public intoxication when Denton County deputies found a warrant for his arrest for failure to appear. He was promptly arrested.

Austin spent the night in jail and paid the fine for the public intoxication charge, according to Davenport’s letter to county officials.

He later learned that the case numbers had been switched by county officials in issuing the warrant, incorrectly showing that Austin was being sought for failure to appear on a 2005 misdemeanor driving-while-intoxicated case that was linked to another man.

Austin also had a 2005 DWI charge, but his case had been resolved for several years, Davenport said.

The warrant should have been issued in the name of the other man who had failed to appear on his DWI charge, according to the demand letter. A Denton County judge on Dec. 12 issued an order recalling the warrant against Austin, records show.

“The county did issue a court order recalling the warrant issued on his behalf,” Davenport said. “The day he was arrested, he was taking a nap in his car when deputies approached him.”

Looking ahead

The demand letter from Davenport states the men are prepared to file a lawsuit against Denton County and “all the responsible parties,” but indicates they would like to discuss an “amicable resolution.”

They have an arrest record trailing them now because of the mistakes made by Denton County officials, Davenport said.

The letter states both men have good jobs and have incurred unnecessary legal costs.

“We hope to settle, but we are fully prepared to go forth and file suit if need be,” Davenport said.

Staff writer Bj Lewis contributed to this report.

MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.