The case sat on a shelf for seven months, but when Baton Rouge police finally picked it up, they needed little time to determine a teller at the Pelican State Credit Union had been embezzling bundles of cash.
The problem for the Baton Rouge Police Department — and, by extension, the city-parish — was that officers arrested the wrong Lawanda M. Young on suspicion of felony theft.
Detectives failed to confirm the identity of the teller, Lawanda McKenzie Young, 39, and issued an erroneous arrest warrant for Lawanda Marie Young, 35, a woman taken into custody after a traffic stop in March 2010.
“It’s ridiculous,” Lawanda Marie Young said, adding her son, then 6 years old, witnessed her arrest.
“I don’t do bad things. This devastated me.”
The department apologized for the mix-up and arrested the older Young later that month.
That didn’t stop the wrongly accused Young from filing a civil rights lawsuit claiming she was treated like a “locked up, caged animal” in Parish Prison before posting bail the following day.
More than 31/2 years after the misidentification, the city-parish is considering settling the state court claim for $30,000, rather than rolling the dice at trial in January.
The Metro Council is expected to vote on the settlement Nov. 13, but not all council members appear ready to accept it.
“I think the officers were acting in good faith with probable cause to arrest,” said Councilman John Delgado, calling the proposed settlement a substantial sum. “I’ll go spend the next year in jail for $30,000 a night.”
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said detectives should have corrected the error sooner, adding she will vote to approve the settlement.
“I’m glad that they gave her an apology,” Marcelle said, “but I think that should have been caught before they arrested her.”
For her part, Lawanda Marie Young said late Monday she was unaware of the developments in her case and seemed disappointed with the proposed settlement amount.
Her attorney, Jeremy J. Pichon, of New Orleans, did not return messages seeking comment.
The case began in September 2009 after an audit found some $10,000 missing from the vault at the Pelican State Credit Union on North Lobdell Boulevard.
The teller, Lawanda McKenzie Young, had been fired after the credit union discovered her register $6,500 short, money she claimed was placed in another drawer, then taken by someone else.
The woman denied stealing the cash but promised to make restitution, acknowledging her responsibility to account for the funds. The credit union contacted the authorities less than two weeks after she was fired.
The case was not assigned to a detective for follow-up for seven months, according to supplemental police reports. When investigators finally looked into the matter, in March 2010, they contacted the credit union again, but an employee there did not have the former teller’s personnel information in front of her.
The employee confirmed what she thought to be the teller’s height, weight, age and race, which satisfied the police.
From there, Detective Jeff Smith ran a search and found a photograph and profile of Lawanda Marie Young and decided to issue an arrest warrant for her “because she could not be located,” according to police reports.
“At this time I had no reason to believe that the information contained in the initial report was wrong or inaccurate,” Smith wrote. He later added the two Lawanda Youngs were “only 10 pounds different in weight and 2 inches different in physical stature.”
It was not clear from police reports whether Smith asked the credit union to review a photograph to confirm the former employee’s identity.
The wrongly arrested Young, who had never worked for the credit union, said she obtained a photograph of the former teller from the financial institution and used it to persuade detectives of their mistake after she was released.
Smith was not disciplined over the mix-up, said Sgt. Mary Ann Godawa, a police spokeswoman.
Two days after the warrant was issued, a couple of police officers were patrolling Gus Young Avenue when they spotted an erratic motorist run a red light and begin weaving through traffic, according to police reports.
The officers said Lawanda Marie Young appeared to elude them and ran another red light before finally pulling over, allegations the woman denied as “lies.”
The erroneous warrant appeared during a routine check, and Lawanda Marie Young was booked into Parish Prison on accusations she had embezzled thousands of dollars.
In her lawsuit, the woman claimed the traffic stop had been without probable cause and the officers threatened to take her son to child protection services.
The woman also was cited for a string of traffic violations, all of which were dismissed in City Court, according to court records.
Smith, the detective, apologized to the woman after she was released and told her he would “take the necessary steps needed (to) correct this matter and spare her any further inconvenience,” according to a police report.
Lawanda McKenzie Young, the actual suspect, surrendered to police March 29, 2010, and pleaded guilty to theft earlier this year. She was sentenced to four years probation and ordered to pay a fine, court costs and restitution to the credit union.
Lawanda Marie Young said she is still waiting to be compensated.
“I think something needs to be done about it,” she said. “Everything just went wrong.”