Joshua Spriestersbach, who spent more than two years locked inside a state-run mental hospital in Hawaii after being mistakenly identified, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit over the weekend that seeks financial damages for his “outrageous arrest, detention and forced medical treatment.”
The lawsuit seeks to hold a number of individuals and institutions accountable, from the Honolulu police officer who arrested Spriestersbach in 2017 to the public defenders who refused to believe him when he told them that he wasn’t the convicted felon they had confused him for, to the doctors who repeatedly ignored his pleas for help.
Also named as defendants are the State of Hawaii, City and County of Honolulu, Department of Public Safety and the Office of the Public Defender.
The case was filed by Jennifer Brown, the associate director of the Hawaii Innocence Project who has spent the past several months trying to clear Spriestersbach’s name, and two prominent civil rights lawyers from the mainland — Paul Hoffman and Al Gerhardstein.
In an interview with Civil Beat, Gerhardstein described Spriestersbach’s case as appalling and unconscionable.
He said the complaint seeks monetary damages, but it also demands that several of the agencies named as defendants, including the Honolulu Police Department, Hawaii Department of Public Safety and Hawaii State Hospital, implement new policies and procedures to ensure that anyone in their custody is properly identified.
“I’ve been in practice for more than 40 years so it takes a lot to shock me, but this case did,” Gerhardstein said. “It was extremely disturbing and as we looked at all the documents and verified the story that was laid out in the complaint I was just really astounded, upset and angry for Joshua.”
Spriestersbach was arrested in 2017 while sleeping on the sidewalk outside of a homeless shelter in Honolulu. The arresting officer, Abraham Bruhn, confused him for Thomas R. Castleberry who had an outstanding warrant related to 2006 drug charges.
Spriestersbach was taken to the Oahu Community Correctional Center where he was processed as Thomas Castleberry and held there for several months before being committed to the Hawaii State Hospital.
Throughout his various court proceedings related to Castleberry’s charges, Spriestersbach was represented by a series of public defenders, who, according to the complaint, repeatedly refused to acknowledge what he was telling them — that he was not Thomas Castleberry.
Spriestersbach remained in the Hawaii State Hospital for more than two years where he was forced to take medication that left him catatonic.
He was released in January 2020 once a doctor at the hospital realized the mistake. Spriestersbach was taken back to the homeless shelter where he’d been arrested in 2017 and left there with his social security card, state ID, two copies of his birth certificate and 50 cents.
The lawsuit details how the mix up occurred several years prior, in 2011, when Spriestersbach was arrested for sleeping on school property. He told the officers his name was “Castleberry” after his grandfather William Castleberry, who is of no relation to Thomas.
The officers ran Castleberry’s name and turned up Thomas Castleberry’s outstanding warrant, but did not arrest Spriestersbach for it.
A similar situation played out in 2015 when a search of Spriestersbach’s name turned up Thomas Castleberry, but the officers again were able to verify they weren’t the same person by checking the fingerprints.
In both cases, the lawsuit says, the officers should have corrected the record so that a future mistake would not be made. Instead, the alias stuck and Spriestersbach paid the price.
The lawsuit says that no actions have been taken to correct the record that Spriestersbach is not Thomas Castleberry. It also accuses state officials of trying to cover their tracks. For example, after Spriestersbach was released, a prosecutor, public defender and deputy attorney general met in secret with the judge to discuss his case, but there’s no record of what was actually said during the meeting.
The state’s criminal database that tracks individuals who have been arrested and convicted in Hawaii has been altered as well, according to the lawsuit. Before Spriestersbach was released from the state hospital, Thomas Castleberry’s record never included the name “Joshua Spriestersbach.”
It was only after his release that someone modified the record, the lawsuit alleges “as an attempt to cover-up, explain and excuse the gross miscarriage of justice that was done to Joshua.”
Acting HPD Chief Rade Vanic responded to Spriestersbach’s lawsuit Monday in a written statement issued to members of the local media.
“The HPD is currently reviewing department policies and procedures to determine if changes are needed,” Vanic said. “We are also continuing to work with city attorneys to fully investigate and address the allegations in the lawsuit.”
Officials with the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the Public Defender did not immediately respond to a Civil Beat request for comment.
Read the lawsuit here:
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