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Lockport man wrongly jailed over financial crime resolved years earlier

A Lockport man who says he spent three days in jail after a traffic stop because of mistakes made by local police plans to sue the Town of Amherst and Erie County over their role in his ordeal.

Richard Orens is seeking at least $750,000 from Amherst, the town's Police Department, the county, the county Sheriff's Office and Central Police Services, according to a notice filed this month in State Supreme Court.

Orens alleges that he was taken into custody by Amherst police in January 2019 for an erroneous arrest warrant connected to a financial crime resolved years earlier, and neither he nor his attorney know how the warrant ended up in the electronic record system shared by police agencies here.

An Amherst town justice ordered Orens released after three days, but Orens said his time in jail brought back difficult memories of a life he has worked hard to leave behind.

"It was like hell all over again," Orens said in an interview.

A spokesman for Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the county doesn't comment on pending litigation. Amherst police also declined to comment.

The town's outside attorney is researching the matter.

"We don't know yet where the fault lies or whether the warrant was actually valid," Town Attorney Stanley J. Sliwa said.

Orens, 52, acknowledges he has a criminal record. He was incarcerated twice, once for 10 months in the early 1990s for his role in what prosecutors described as a home improvement scheme and again a decade later after he was accused of issuing about $21,000 in bad checks.

Orens pleaded guilty to forgery but failed to show up for his May 2003 sentencing in State Supreme Court, according to the summons and notice filed earlier this month. He surrendered in November 2003 and received a sentence of two to four years in prison.

He later pleaded guilty to two counts of issuing a bad check and, according to the notice, received a concurrent sentence of two to four years in prison and understood that resolved the last of the charges originating in Amherst and Clarence town courts.

"The matter had been disposed of a long, long time ago," said his attorney, Frank Falzone.

Orens said he spent 11 months in prison and finished his sentence on work release and parole, options he wouldn't have been eligible for if an arrest warrant existed.

Further, Orens and Falzone argue, he has been pulled over about five times in the years since and no check of his driver's license ever brought up an arrest warrant. And he went through a criminal background check while applying for a job as a United Parcel Service driver that also didn't find any warrant, Orens said.

That changed Jan. 14, 2019, when Kenmore police stopped Orens on Kenmore Avenue near Delaware Avenue for paint peeling from his license plate. He also had a recently expired inspection sticker.

Orens said the officer informed him he had an outstanding warrant from about 18 years ago and that he would have to turn Orens over to Amherst police. Orens said he didn't know what it was about, and he didn't learn more until he was taken to Amherst police headquarters.

He said he tried to tell the officers the case had been resolved, but they told him he needed to spend the night in the lockup and appear in Amherst Town Court in the morning. Per protocol, officers took his shoelaces and belt as a safety precaution.

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In court, Justice Kara Buscaglia informed Orens that he never was arraigned on the bad-check charge that dated back to 2003, the notice stated. She ordered him held over until a later court date.

Orens spent two days and nights in the Erie County Holding Center until, on Jan. 17, he appeared before Amherst Town Justice Geoffrey Klein with Falzone as his attorney.

Klein dismissed the bad-check charge on the basis that Orens' right to a speedy trial had been violated and ordered Orens released, said Falsone.

A court clerk told The Buffalo News the Town Court did not have any public records on the case.

Sliwa, the town attorney, said Orens' criminal history complicates the case. He said outside counsel Michael J. Chmiel is trying to find out what exactly happened, whether an error was made and – if so – which agency is responsible.

"That's what needs to be sorted out," Sliwa said. "We don't know that at this juncture."

Orens and Falzone said they also don't know why the warrant ended up in the system.

Their notice accuses Amherst police of negligence in entering an active warrant for Orens into state and federal criminal records management systems and similarly cites the county's Central Police Services agency for failing to ensure the accuracy of the warrant.

"It was up to them to have up-to-date information on this guy," Falzone said.

Orens accuses the Sheriff's Office, which operates the Holding Center, of false imprisonment.

Orens said spending three days in custody was embarrassing for him and painful for his wife. He said he strives to live a law-abiding life and has struggled to leave his past in the past.

"I wasn't a saint," he said, "but I grew from it. I moved on."

He said his children, ages 11 and 5, believe he spent those days in jail working out of town. He also didn't tell his mother what happened.

Orens, who works in the restaurant industry, said he's trying to make a point with his lawsuit.

"I was held accountable," he said, "and I feel that everybody else in power should be held accountable for things like that."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Orens’ attorney, Frank Falzone.

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