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Woman almost loses everything after being wrongfully jailed

Woman almost loses everything after being wrongfully jailed

By Darcy Spears. CREATED May 6, 2013

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- Imagine your life coming to a screeching halt and getting thrown in jail for something you know you didn't do.

Contact 13 has learned it happens more often than you think.

Chief Investigator Darcy Spears exposes flaws in our system that could someday land you behind bars.

Sandra Johnson takes nothing for granted these days.  Not moments in the park with her daughter.
Not even the simple daily task of doing the dishes.

That's because it was all taken away just when she thought her life was finally getting on track.

"I'm not an angel.  I have things in my past that I'm not proud of."

Sandra is a convicted felon. Her history with drugs got her in big trouble in Nevada and California.

Though she served her time, did extra rehab on her own, and got an honorable discharge from probation, she makes no excuses for herself.

"I've gone now three, four years out of prison, no trouble."

In January, Sandra was preparing for a fresh start with her daughter.

She just got a car and found work, but she never got the chance to start her new job because on Jan. 8, she was pulled over by Nevada Highway Patrol.

"My tags were expired.  I do know why I got pulled over, that was the reason.  But I never expected to be pulled out of my car the way I was, like a felony stop."

What should have been a fix-it ticket turned into a 17-day stint behind bars.

Sandra was taken to jail on a no-bail bench warrant she insisted was bogus.

"I was angry.  I was very, very angry.  I'm still angry about it.  It's like, why is this happening to me?" Sandra said through tears.

She couldn't get an answer from anyone at the jail, despite pleading for help, even filing a formal grievance about the invalid warrant.

"Case is closed.  Why am I here?  Why is there a warrant, you know? And I kept just getting pushed off."

Had someone listened to her, they'd have figured out what Contact 13 learned in a matter of minutes. 

A quick check of the court records confirmed that the warrant had been quashed by a judge in Oct. 2008, and should have been long gone from the active warrant system.

"There has to be some accountability," says Action News Legal Analyst Al Lasso.  "A lot of times you hear people in jail say "I'm not supposed to be here.  I'm not supposed to be here, something's wrong."  And after hearing that so many times, people start to not believe them.  And that's exactly what I think happened in this case."

On Jan. 24, Sandra finally got into Judge Linda Bell's courtroom.

Darcy: Why did Sandra sit there for 17 days before she was able to see a judge?
Judge Bell: I don't have a good explanation for that. I really don't.  The bench warrant return did not get filed for quite some time and it was put on my next available calender.

As soon as Judge Bell looked up the case, she realized something was very wrong.

"That the warrant had been quashed and so she shouldn't be in custody.  So at that point really all I could do was release her."

By then, it was too late. She'd lost her new job. Lost her car because she couldn't afford $1,300 to get it out of impound.

Sandra: I don't even know what my daughter was thinking.  I'm gone.
Darcy: You came back into her life and then you were gone again.
Sandra: Just disappeared.

"It was really upsetting to me," Judge Bell recalls.  "You just never want to see a mistake like that impact somebody negatively."

And all Sandra had to show for it was an apology from the court.

"It's really hard to explain to the average person that the court system can sometimes make a mistake so bad that you can lose just about everything in your life and all you get is "I'm sorry."  But unfortunately, that's how it works," Lasso explains.

Darcy: A lot of people will look at this and say how and why can something like this happen?
Judge Bell: Once a warrant is quashed, then the clerk's office sends paperwork over to the jail and the jail inputs that into the system, and frankly, going back so far, we couldn't tell quite where the breakdown was.

Contact 13 learned no one is double-checking the system.

Las Vegas police says about ten years ago, they had to confirm a warrant still existed before making an arrest.

But now, they say if it's in the computer, they assume it's valid.

NHP -- who arrested Sandra -- say their dispatchers don't verify Justice Court warrants either.

Only for Municipal Court do they actually call to confirm a warrant is valid.

But those explanations amount to nothing for this mother who lost so much in such a short time.

"Whatever the reason is... I was told a glitch.  A glitch doesn't cut it.  I can't understand a glitch.  It's not acceptable to me," Sandra says.

The problem of wrongful incarceration goes way beyond Sandra Johnson. 

We uncovered case after case where someone was put behind bars who never should have been there. 

We'll examine why and look at what recourse there is as we continue this special report tomorrow on Action News live at 6.

Darcy Spears

Darcy Spears

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Darcy Spears is currently the Chief Investigative Reporter for Action News.