RENO, Nev. — A Las Vegas entertainer who lost his job on an Australian cruise ship while jailed in rural Nevada on $675,000 bail for a residential burglary is suing two counties for holding him 18 days illegally before his release in a bizarre case of mistaken identity.
Sean Laughlin, 56, accuses Lyon and Nye counties of violating his constitutional due process rights and Nevada law requiring jailed suspects see a judge within 72 hours.
The nightmare his lawyer describes as “Kafkaesque” began Dec. 12, 2016, when a state trooper stopped the longtime Vegas performer, comedian and juggler for a minor traffic offense in Carson City.
A routine warrant check showed he was wanted for failure to appear in court for a March 2016 burglary in Pahrump, 385 miles (620 kilometers) away.
Laughlin insisted he had no criminal record, had never been to Pahrump nor had received a summons.
His unusually high bail the bench warrant set at $450,000 “mysteriously” rose to $675,000 when he was booked into jail, according to his Reno attorney, Terri Keyser-Cooper.
The crime: stealing jewelry, used women’s clothing, DVDs, a camper and an electric screwdriver with a total value less than $4,000.
Eighteen days later, severely depressed and borderline suicidal, he was set free with no explanation without ever seeing a judge. While incarcerated, he missed his cruise from Australia and was subsequently fired.
“It is a story straight from hell and right out of Kafka,” Keyser-Cooper wrote in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Reno.
She cites parallels to two Franz Kafka stories about ordinary people thrown into worlds they don’t understand and can’t explain — “The Trial” (1925) and “The Metamorphosis” (1915). A bank clerk is unexpectedly arrested in one by unidentified agents from an unspecified agency for an unspecified crime. A traveling salesman awakes in the other to find himself inexplicably transformed into a huge insect struggling to adjust to his unfathomable condition.
Throughout incarceration, Laughlin protested almost daily to deputies, inmates — “anyone who might listen,” the lawsuit said. But they refused to check out his story. He had “no idea what was going on.”
The lawsuit seeks unspecified general, special and punitive damages. It accuses the counties and others to be named of “participating in the unlawful conduct or acting jointly and in concert with others who did,” resulting in his 18-day incarceration.
“This false arrest, made with callous and deliberate indifference, almost ruined Laughlin’s life,” Keyser-Cooper told The Associated Press.
District attorneys in Nye and Lyon counties didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
Laughlin’s arrest apparently stemmed from confusion between Laughlin, who lived in Silver City, and another Sean Laughlin in Pahrump.
The trooper found a warrant for the latter matching his height and weight on his driver’s license, but disregarded the address discrepancy.
At gunpoint, the patrolman ordered Laughlin to his knees, handcuffed him and searched his vehicle unsuccessfully for weapons and drugs. He issued a traffic warning then sent him to Lyon County Jail in Yerington.
Finally, on Dec. 21 Laughlin spoke for the first time to an attorney who started explaining the situation to Nye County Deputy District Attorney Christi Kindel, pleading for reasonable bail. But Kindel declined to investigate further, the lawsuit said.
With no arraignment in sight, his then-lawyer told him the next day it was doubtful anything could be done before the new year because most county workers would be on vacation.
On Christmas Eve, he was called from his cell hopeful of being released but instead transported to Nye County Jail in Pahrump. He was able to telephone his fiancée in Australia for the first time Christmas Day and told her to contact his agent about the cruise ship he missed the week before. He feared “he would remain in jail forever.”
Suddenly on Dec. 29, to his “amazement, without warning, without explanation,” Laughlin was released without ever seeing a judge. A Nye County justice of the peace entered an order dismissing the charges.
Laughlin, who had performed since the 1980s at casinos, in movies, on television and at national comedy clubs, spent most of 2017 depressed and unemployed before getting a job this year as a basic laborer.
“He’s never been a laborer in his life,” Keyser-Cooper told the AP on Wednesday. “It’s crazy what this poor guy went through.”
If he’d seen a judge as required, he could have shown he was the victim of misidentification, had been overseas when the burglary occurred and never received a summons — which was mailed to the other Sean Laughlin in Pahrump but returned to sender undeliverable, the lawsuit said.
“The judge would have immediately known the bail in the amount of $675,000 was unreasonable and absurd.”
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