On a Friday in August in California last year, Charles Belk was texting while walking to his car to put more coins in a meter. A nearby bank had just been robbed and Belk was detained by police because he “fit the description” of one of the robber’s accomplices.
Handcuffed and forced to sit on a roadside curb for nearly an hour, he was subsequently transported to a police station, fingerprinted, photographed, denied a phone call, denied access to an attorney and held for six hours on a charge of armed bank robbery.
DON'T MISS: Charles Belk on the Cobblestone Press -- Monday at 7:30 pm
He was released later that night and given a detention certificate, which indicated he was detained but not arrested. However, an arrest record appeared on the local sheriff’s website, and a state legal process had to be pursued to get the arrest record sealed and destroyed.
Charles Belk is the founder of “Fitting The Description,” a non-profit organization established to build awareness of the countless number of individuals who are wrongfully detained or arrested because they fit the description. In addition to using his incident as a teachable moment for students, law enforcement agencies and the general public, Belk is rallying support of state legislators to introduce “auto erase” legislation to automatically erase the arrest records of innocent individuals that are wrongfully arrested because they were mistakenly indentified.
During his visit to Rhode Island last week, Belk was on hand for the House of Representatives session at which Rep.Carlos E. Tobon (D-Dist. 58, Pawtucket) introduced just such a bill.
“As unfortunate as these incidents are, it is understandable that, in an effort to solve a crime, police may sometimes detain the wrong person,” said Representative Tobon. “What should never happen is that these wrongfully detained individuals continue to suffer as a result of that mistake, by having something remain on their permanent record, or by being forced to spend time and money to have the record corrected.”
The Tobon bill, 2015-H 5450, would require the sealing and destruction of all arrest records and indices of arrest for those persons who are wrongfully arrested or detained by any law enforcement agency. It would also provide that the arrest need not be disclosed for any purpose and would mandate that the arresting agency notify the arrestee/detainee of the determination that the arrest/detention was wrongful and case of mistaken identity.
The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Judiciary. Among the co-sponsors are House Majority Leader John J. DeSimone (D-Dist. 5, Providence), Rep. Jean Phillippe Barros (D-Dist. 59, Pawtucket), Rep. Christopher R. Blazejewski (D-Dist. 2, Providence) and Rep. Joseph J. Solomon Jr. (D-Dist. 22, Warwick).
“A simple mistake such as this can have a lasting impact on an individual,” said Representative Tobon. “Unless these records are immediately erased, they can haunt an individual for a long, long time, affecting their ability to gain employment or find a place to live. I am grateful to Mr. Belk for bringing this issue to my attention and for allowing us, by virtue of this legislation, to correct this existing problem with the law enforcement system and to guarantee fair treatment for all people.”
Representative Tobon said that, during Mr. Belk’s visit to Rhode Island, they were able to secure strong support for the bill from the State Police and the police chiefs in Providence and Pawtucket. “Police want to solve crimes, but they also want to do the right thing and not cause undue harm to individuals who are mistakenly arrested or detained. With their support, I am confident we will be able to enact this legislation this year.”
In addition to Rhode Island, similar legislation has been introduced in the legislatures in Illinois, Pennsylvania anArizona. Poised to consider bills are the legislatures in several other states, including North Carolina, Ohio, Alabama, Minnesota, Tennessee, Florida, and New Jersey.
A companion Senate bill is expected to be introduced by Sen. Juan M. Pichardo (D-Dist. 2, Providence).
In addition to the mistaken identity bill, Representative Tobon also sponsored a House Resolution, introduced and adopted during Mr. Belk’s visit to the House chamber, honoring him for establishing the “Fitting The Description” organization and for bringing awareness to this problem.
“Mr. Belk turned a negative experience into a learning opportunity for all of us, and we commend him for that,” said Representative Tobon. “Out nation continues to grapple with discrimination and injustice, and while many steps have been taken in the right direction, there is still much work to be done. We owe thanks to Mr. Belk for what he is doing.”