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COVID leads to man's wrongful arrest

Lee County man spends night in jail due to mistaken identity
Posted at 6:11 PM, May 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-06 23:21:01-04

LEHIGH ACRES — Ramon Nomar Perez Perez says his life was turned upside down after going to jail for crimes he says, he didn't commit. The 22-year old Lehigh Acres man is now without a job and says his car was towed after missing payments several months in a row.

He says, "I told them, I'm not the guy you're looking for. There was a kid in a police report who used my ID. And you're looking for him. So you arresting me, you're not gonna get the kid. I'm innocent."

The arrest stems from an incident on December 20, 2020, outside of Cantina 109, after the bar closed and ended up in the parking lot.

Perez Perez says he only heard about what happened more than a month later when he learned there was a warrant for his arrest. He says, "He got basically detained by his car and he had a bunch of pills and weed on him. And when the officer reaches into his pockets and asked if you do you have an ID, he took out his cell phone and showed them a picture my license and said my first name out loud."

James Chillemi, the attorney for Perez Perez says, "The Lee County Sheriffs Office found it was sufficient for this perpetrator to show a picture of an ID on a phone, probably out of focus, probably on a table or something along these lines. Coupling or piggybacking off that, the ID which they were shown, in my opinion, does not look anything like my client. That, with the height being a six-inch difference, the weight being a 40 pound difference."

FOX 4 obtained the warrant request. It describes the night that the deputy approached a blue Corvette after a report of "suspicious activity involving a group of multiple subjects." The affidavit says on December 20, "a male later identified as Ramon Nomar Perez Perez, a black male, was standing at the open driver's door."

The man near the blue Corvette was detained, but not booked into jail. The actual Ramon Perez Perez, who is Hispanic, says he was at the nightclub that night and had to produce his ID to the bartender. He says he doesn't know how a photo of his ID ended up on the suspect's phone. He also says he was heading to a friend's house when the suspicious activity was taking place in the parking lot.

Perez Perez was then booked into Lee County Jail on January 29, 2021. He was charged with possession of drugs and drug trafficking. He remembers, "This is really serious. Like, they're saying I'm looking at like, 30 to 40 years."

Chillemi, questions why deputies didn't take the suspect to jail. He says, "In this case, it's even more egregious because we're looking at three felonies, one of which, is first degree for drug trafficking."

Perez Perez says, "Due to COVID, they didn't arrest him that night. In order for you to get arrested, you have to do a violent act or violent crime or hurt somebody, in order for them to book you into jail the same night."

Lee County Sheriff's Office sent FOX 4 an email regarding their policy on booking suspects during the height of the pandemic:

"Sheriff Carmine Marceno fully supports Governor Ron Desantis' efforts toward reopening Florida. His decision to suspend local COVID-19 emergency orders is an example of his leadership and ability to make our state strong and safe. The Lee County Sheriff's Office is constantly reviewing our agency practices to ensure we are performing at the highest level and following suit with any and all orders coming from the Governor's Office. That being said, we continue to monitor the guidelines implemented in our jail at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the COVID-19 crisis, public safety requires that space remain available in the jail to house violent offenders and others who pose significant danger to the community.
To assure we can accept and house those individuals who pose a danger to the public, consistent with major jails throughout Florida, the Lee County Jail currently accepts arrestees charged with violent offenses, DUI, domestic violence, etc., or who otherwise pose a danger to the public or property. Additionally, the jail accepts arrestees resulting from special community- based operations implemented to address specific public safety purposes.

Individuals who violate the law continue to be charged and held accountable. Non-violent offenders who do not pose a danger to the public are required to answer in court for their actions, through notices to appear, summons, or warrants.

Inmates are triaged (to include temperature reading) and placed in separate cells and quarantined for a period of 14 days before moving to general population housing.
As stated above, we are constantly reviewing our agency practices, including our booking process as a pertains to COVID-19. If and when any updates to the above protocol are made, we will inform the media."

Dr. David Thomas is a former police officer and forensics professor at FGCU. He believes a drug trafficking charge, although not considered violent, should warrant an actual arrest and that the deputy on that initial night, should have taken the suspect to jail. Thomas says, "They weren't taking him to jail because of COVID. I think that's what drove this entire bus. So, the bad guy got off because he had the advantage of COVID and he was kind of able to BS his way through all of what was going on."

"I knew that I needed to clear my name and do it as fast as possible."

The internal investigative report reveals, "The suspect demographics were not queried through NCIC/DAVID/ELVIS or Locals due to the subject regurgitating the information on the DL without hesitation coupled with the fact the picture looked comparable." Chillemi adds, "They have admitted in their internal affairs response that they did not use any of those systems. And the reason, "Is that there was a ruckus around the car where they were with the suspect." Thomas also says, "The simplest database is fingerprints. And, it doesn't take long to go and run the prints at the jail to determine the person. It takes less than an hour."

The internal investigation report says after Perez Perez was released, he thought he knew who could be using his identity and gave the name to the arresting deputy. It goes onto say that the deputy then realized he had been given a false ID that night around the blue Corvette.

According to the investigation report, the prosecutor and sheriff's office agreed not to file charges against the actual suspect due to other active criminal cases against him and because of "issues regarding the case as a whole."

Chillemi is working on expunging his client's record. He says, "I would like to see them recognize that this behavior, that this protocol is unacceptable. And it has now, to the tune of perhaps, a young man's career. A young man's moving into the job world. It's affected him forever. and so I'd like to see some sort of mea culpa, some sort of compensation paid to my client."

Perez Perez says through all this, his family has been his biggest support and says that he remains hopeful his fate will turn around.

In response to FOX 4's query regarding an arrest policy due to COVID, the Collier County Sheriff's Office released this statement:

"The Collier County Sheriff's Office issued notices to appear in lieu of making physical arrests for nonviolent offenses as part of our COVID-19 protocols.
An offense is considered violent if a weapon or threat of a weapon are used or if physical harm occurs. A notice to appear is an arrest through the issuance of a document. It is the same as an arrest. Failure to appear on the designated date can lead to an arrest warrant. Like other law enforcement agencies in Southwest Florida, our deputies always have discretion regarding whether to make a physical arrest or issue a notice to appear based on the facts and seriousness of offense/offenses."

Charlotte County Sheriff's Office and Hendry County Sheriff's Office have not responded to the same query.