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ATLANTA, Ga. - When Kobe Jones was robbed at gunpoint, he hoped Atlanta police would find those responsible. But instead of being treated like a victim, Jones was arrested and charged with a crime in Clayton County.
It was a crime he didn’t commit.
Jones, 21, had the same name as the real suspect accused of breaking into a rental home, damaging floors and walls and stealing a power tool. That Kobe Jones was a teenager whose mother had recently been evicted, and he was seen at the townhouse when it was vandalized.
It was a case of mistaken identity that cost one man his job. But it could happen to anyone, according to legal experts. In Georgia, a private citizen can apply for an arrest warrant that only needs a judge’s approval. The homeowner who applied for a warrant against Jones had many details about the alleged crime, but when he did a quick online person search, he found a different Kobe Jones and submitted the wrong date of birth, according to a WSB-TV investigation.
“They said I broke into somebody’s house. I put bleach on the floor. I stole a power screw. I stole a power screw drill,” Jones said. “I cut hair, you know? What am I going to do with a power drill?”
Jones was preparing for his barber exam in December when a Clayton County townhouse was damaged. The property owner, Andy Bloch, called police to report the damage, but was told there was little investigators could do because the suspect was a juvenile.
Bloch then filed a warrant application, but was initially turned away because he didn’t know the suspect’s date of birth, according to WSB-TV. After finding a Kobe Jones in Clayton County by searching online, Bloch submitted that date of birth and a judge signed the warrant.
The wrongly accused Jones had no idea there was a warrant for his arrest until he was robbed at gunpoint in April. When Atlanta police did a routine search on Jones, an outstanding warrant showed up.
He was taken first to the Atlanta jail and then to the jail in Clayton County, where Jones said he considered killing himself because he was so distraught. No one listened when Jones tried to explain he wasn’t a suspect.
“There are a lot of flaws in our system, and this is one that just snagged this kid big-time,” James Studdard, Jones’ attorney, said.
Jones stayed behind bars for three weeks. Just before a court hearing, Studdard asked Bloch to meet him at Jones’ holding cell.
“I don’t see him. He’s not here,” Jones heard Bloch say. “Wrong person.”
Studdard then told the judge about the mistaken identity and Jones was released. The ordeal cost him his job and clients he had worked hard to get, and nearly ruined his relationship with his girlfriend, who at the time of the arrest was pregnant with the couple’s first child. Jones now has his life back on track, but is considering a civil lawsuit.
The real suspect in the vandalizing and theft has not been charged for the alleged crimes.
Atlanta attorney Esther Panitch called Jones’ ordeal a nightmare and said it’s the result of state law that makes it relatively easy to take out warrants.
“I understand there are pros to having citizens accessible to the magistrate court, however, there’s so much abuse that can happen, and we are seeing an example of that right now,” Panitch said. “Though law enforcement has their challenges, they are set up to try to avoid these kinds of errors that citizens can easily make.”