Man locked in mental institution for 2 years over mistaken identity sues Hawaii

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In this photo provided by Vedanta Griffith, Joshua Spriestersbach talks on a phone in Danby, Vermont on March 2020. The Hawaii Innocence Project says Spriestersbach was wrongfully arrested for someone else’s crime and then committed to a state hospital for more than two years because officials mixed him up with someone else. (Vedanta Griffith via AP)

HONOLULU (AP) — A formerly homeless man who ended up in a mental institution for more than two years because of mistaken identity is suing the state and various Honolulu police officers, Hawaii public defenders and doctors.

Joshua Spriestersbach’s attorneys say in a lawsuit filed Sunday in U.S. District Court in Honolulu that Hawaii officials haven’t responded to a petition seeking to correct his records to ensure the error never happens again.

The petition filed in state court in August laid bare Spriestersbach’s bizarre plight, which started with him falling asleep on a sidewalk. He was homeless and hungry while waiting in a long line for food outside a Honolulu shelter in 2017.

When a police officer roused him awake, Spriestersbach thought he was being arrested for the city’s ban on sitting or laying on public sidewalks.

The officer mistook him for a man named Thomas Castleberry, who had a warrant out for his arrest for allegedly violating probation in a 2006 drug case.

Despite Spriestersbach’s protests that he wasn’t Castleberry, he ended up in the Hawaii State Hospital, where he was forced to take psychiatric drugs, the petition said. When a doctor looked into his case and verified the mix-up, officials tried to cover up the mistake by quietly setting him free with just 50 cents to his name, his lawyers said.

Spriestersbach’s lawsuit alleges false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, malicious prosecution, abuse of process and other claims.

“The Department of the Attorney General has not been served with the complaint and have not yet had the opportunity to review it with our client agencies,” Gary Yamashiroya, special assistant to the Hawaii attorney general, said Monday.

The Honolulu Police Department “is currently reviewing department policies and procedures to determine if changes are needed, Interim Chief Rade Vanic said. “We are also continuing to work with city attorneys to fully investigate and address the allegations in the lawsuit.”

State Public Defender James Tabe said Monday his office had no comment.

Spriestersbach’s lawyers hope the lawsuit will lead to procedural changes to ensure proper identification of people in custody, said Kenneth Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project. They’re also seeking monetary damages, to be determined in court.

The lawsuit sheds new light on factors that led to the mix-up, starting with an encounter with officers that happened years earlier.

Spriestersbach was arrested in 2011 for sleeping in a stairwell of a Honolulu middle school. It’s unclear why, but he gave the last name Castleberry, which was his grandfather’s last name, his lawyers said. He didn’t give a first name.

Thomas Castleberry’s 2009 warrant came up, but police were able to determine Spriestersbach wasn’t Thomas Castleberry.

Spriestersbach was arrested again in 2015 for sleeping in a park. He gave his real name, but Thomas Castleberry appeared as an alias. Authorities checked fingerprints and again determined he wasn’t Castleberry.

During his 2017 arrest, Spriestersbach gave his real name, but Thomas Castleberry still showed up as an alias. This time, he was arrested for the warrant.

Even though he was fingerprinted and photographed at a jail, no one checked the prints or photo against Thomas Castleberry’s, the lawsuit said.

Castleberry, who isn’t related to Spriestersbach, is in custofdy with the Alaska of Department of Corrections, with an expected release date in 2022, the lawsuit said. The Alaska Public Defender Agency, which has represented Castleberry, declined to comment Monday.

Police and others, including Spriestersbach’s public defenders and doctors, all had access to information that would have properly identified both men, the lawsuit said.

“Prior to January 2020, not a single person acted on the available information to determine that Joshua was telling the truth – that he was not Mr. Castleberry,” the lawsuit said. “Instead, they determined that Joshua was delusional and incompetent just because he refused to admit that he was Mr. Castleberry and refused to acknowledge Mr. Castleberry’s crimes.”

Spiestersbach now lives with his sister in Vermont. His lawyers said he declined to be interviewed for this story.

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