Thanks to a clerical error, a mother of two in upstate New York spent three nights in jail over Easter weekend. She didn't commit any crimes. Someone just accidentally entered her name on the wrong line of a document.
The story began last Friday evening, when Jessica Donovan got into an argument with employees at a pizza shop near her home. She thought the restaurant owed her a free pie; the employees disagreed. She eventually stopped trying and walked out, knocking over a trash can on her way out. She claims the employees had been swearing at her, and that this was part of why she was so upset.
The pizzeria employees then called the cops, who came to Donovan's home in Colonie, a suburb of Albany. They weren't planning to arrest her over the incident. But when they ran her name through the police database, they discovered a warrant was out for her arrest.
Here's the problem. The November 2018 warrant was actually meant for John Gannon Jr., Donovan's ex-boyfriend, who had allegedly been neglecting to pay her child support. The document lists Donovan as the petitioner and Gannon as the respondent, but the wrong name has inserted into a crucial sentence: "You are therefore commanded to arrest Jessica L. Donovan, and bring said person before this court to be dealt with according to law."
"I said I have custody of my kids," Donovan tells the Albany Times Union. "They told me the date of the warrant, and I said I was there that day when they signed the warrant [to arrest Gannon]. I said 'I have proof'…but they wouldn't take my proof."
Even after she was arrested, Donovan should have been released the next day, right? Nope. The Colonie Police took her to appear before a town justice the next morning. The judge set her bail at $500, which Donovan's mother was ready and willing to pay. But jail officials wouldn't let her go. They said the matter had to be settled by the family court, where the incorrect warrant had been issued.
"Our staff did not take the bail because it being a superior court warrant, there's nothing really that could've been done because her name was the one that was to be arrested and brought forthwith in front of the family court judge," Albany County Sheriff Tim Apple tells WNYT. "Obviously family court is not in session."
So Donovan spent Easter weekend in jail. It was a harrowing experience. "It was dirty, puke on the floor, no one cleaned it, ugh the toilet was just, oh my God," she says to WRGB. Donovan also did not have access to her anti-depressant medication and was placed on suicide watch. "I didn't sleep. I didn't eat a single thing. I didn't drink water. I think I had one serving of milk so that I didn't pass out," she tells the Times Union.
On Monday, Donovan was released after appearing in family court. The New York State Office of Court Administration's director of public information, Lucian Chalfen, issued the following statement to WNYT:
What started out as a clerical error magnified into a very regrettable and Kafkaesque mistake. The name of the petitioner, as opposed to the respondent, ended up on the line ordering police to execute the warrant, which the Judge signed. He is mortified about what transpired and has been counseled by the Administrative Judge for the Judicial District covering Albany. A corrected warrant has since been issued. While it is difficult to mitigate human error, we are looking into the process to see about additional safeguards.
It's not unheard of for administrative mix-ups to result in police arresting the wrong suspects. Earlier this week, Reason's Zuri Davis wrote about an Ohio woman, Ashley Foster, who was mistaken for a different woman by the same name and arrested for alleged drug trafficking. She spent a week in jail, lost her job, and had her kids temporarily taken away.
Both Winn and Apple have expressed their regret over what happened to Donovan. But words only go so far. "Somebody messed up," Donovan tells the Times Union. "I honestly want somebody to pay for that."