Hawaii man was institutionalized for two years against his will after authorities mistook him for a criminal.
Joshua Spriestersbach was arrested and committed to the Hawaii State Hospital (HSH), a psychiatric facility, against his will in May 2017. He then spent more than two years there in a case of mistaken identity and was given psychotropic medications every time he attempted to fight the claims against him. The Hawaii Civil Rights Project filed a federal lawsuit on his behalf against the city of Honolulu, the office of the public defender, the state of Hawaii, and a laundry list of other plaintiffs, including a host of doctors involved in his care.
Law enforcement authorities allegedly mistook Spriestersbach for a criminal named Thomas Castleberry, according to the lawsuit. Spriestersbach was sleeping on a sidewalk outside a homeless shelter when he was handcuffed and booked for Castleberry’s alleged crimes, which include using drugs, vehicle theft, and burglary, all of which led to an outstanding warrant for Castleberry’s arrest.
At the time, “Spriestersbach provided officers with his name, date of birth, social security number, and fingerprints, but Honolulu Police never verified his information,” according to the suit, which adds, “Police also had Castleberry’s image on file, but no distinction was made between the two men.”
While waiting for his first court appearance, Spriestersbach spent four months at the Oahu Community Correctional Center. He told his public defender that he wasn’t Castleberry and that the police had made a mistake. However, at the court date, “the public defender requested a panel of three physicians to evaluate his client at the state hospital, where he then spent the next two and a half years,” the lawsuit states. He was represented by six more public defenders, yet no one verified his identity.
“Once Joshua was at HSH, he told hospital staff, his doctors, and the three mental health evaluators that he was not Castleberry,” according to the Innocence Project. “The more Joshua protested that he was not Castleberry and that he had never committed the crimes he was in HSH for, the more he was given strong anti-psychotic medication, which caused him to be catatonic.”
In 2018, hospital employees accompanied Spriestersbach to Honolulu to retrieve his identification card and social security card, and he was able to provide both. Yet, this did little to help. “Even though they demonstrated proof of his identity, doctors continued to illegally incarcerate Joshua for two more years,” according to the suit.
It wasn’t until a doctor decided to independently investigate the situation that hospital employees determined that he was telling the truth and Spriestersbach was released in 2020. “They dropped him off at the houseless shelter, gave him back his 50 cents, and acted like this never happened,” said Ken Lawson of the Hawaii Civil Rights Project.
Spriestersbach, who now lives in Vermont, is still identified by the wrong name in Hawaii’s criminal database. “He’s deathly afraid,” one of his attorneys, Alphonse A. Gerhardstein, said. “It’s outrageous that the officials there have not cleared up this warrant.”
The lawsuit specifically states, “Unless all law enforcement and medical records reflecting Joshua’s misidentification are immediately corrected, Joshua faces being rearrested and incarcerated for Thomas R. Castleberry’s crimes.” His attorneys are suing the defendants for “malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress,” and more in damages.
Honolulu Police Department (HPD) Interim Chief Rade Vanic responded, “The HPD is currently reviewing department policies and procedures to determine if changes are needed. We are also continuing to work with city attorneys to fully investigate and address the allegations in the lawsuit.”