Damian Cantu, right, and his attorney Richard Gilliland appear in Yakima County Superior courtroom in Yakima, Wash. to try to correct Cantu’s criminal record on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016. Since the 1990s, Cantu has had difficulty passing background checks because a third-degree rape charge has been attached to his record. 

For years, Damian Cantu wondered why he couldn’t find a better job or a decent place to live.

He knew he had a criminal record, but it didn’t seem that bad: He’d pleaded guilty in 1993 to drunken driving.

What he didn’t realize was that background checks also showed that he had pleaded guilty to third-degree rape.

That case, however, involved Damian Eduardo Gutierrez Cantu, but the sex offense ended up on Damian Garza Cantu’s record.

“Anywhere that runs a background check, he can’t pass it,” said Garza Cantu’s attorney, Richard Gilliland of Union Gap.

Garza Cantu is suing Yakima County following an unsuccessful legal claim for $800,000 from the county, saying he lost years of job opportunities, couldn’t attend his children’s school activities and suffered other loses as a result of the erroneous information.

Officials for Yakima County say they are preparing to defend themselves against the lawsuit, but the case demonstrates the pervasive and sensitive nature of criminal history data.

Bill Raftery, a senior knowledge and information services analyst with the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., said the reliability of court records has improved over the last 10 to 15 years as courts have moved away from paper files.

“As in any human endeavor, mistakes happen,” Raftery said.

He said states have taken steps to address record errors in the digital world.

Colorado, for example, passed legislation several years ago requiring commercial data providers to eliminate a court record from their systems if it had been ordered sealed by a judge.

Alaska now requires cases in which the defendant is found not guilty to be removed from the state’s online court system, though the verdict remains part of the formal court record.

Raftery said police records, not court records, should be treated as the best resource for determining whether someone has been convicted of a crime. In Washington, the State Patrol offers an online service known as WATCH for that purpose.

Deborah Collinsworth, a spokeswoman for the State Patrol section responsible for criminal history, said the agency deals with inquiries about potentially incorrect records on a daily basis.

She provided figures showing that WATCH provided 1.3 million checks in 2014, 1.2 million in 2015 and 996,600 so far this year. Some are for nonprofits or state agencies; fees for the general public start at $12. Figures were not available for requests involving identity verification or expungement and vacation of court records.

Questions come from a variety of sources: inmates who believe their record should reflect a different charge, or someone who says a family member is using their identity.

“There’s a lot of different scenarios,” Collinsworth said.

Staff members research court records, fingerprints or other data to determine whether a change is appropriate.

“A lot of times it’s just a misunderstanding of how to read the rap sheet,” Collinsworth said.

In a lawsuit filed last month, Garza Cantu alleges that Yakima County knew about the error in his file for years but never took steps to correct it. The reasons are unclear, but the lawyer handling the case for the county said in a letter to Garza Cantu’s attorney that the county would deny his request for $800,000 to resolve a legal claim.

Attorney Michael Kitson said in the letter that the county has unspecified “strong defenses” against Garza Cantu’s allegations. Kitson declined to comment further.

Superior Court Judge David Elofson last week approved an order prepared by the county prosecutor’s office to correct Garza Cantu’s information in a court database. The lawsuit is expected to continue regardless; the county this month filed a motion to move the case to federal court because it involves allegations that Garza Cantu’s civil rights were violated.

Garza Cantu asserts that he lost at least 25 job opportunities starting in 1997, after the county clerk’s office passed on the wrong conviction information to the Washington State Patrol, which conducts background checks for employers and others. Gutierrez Cantu was convicted in January of that year. Garza Cantu also had trouble finding places to live, a common issue for sex offenders, and was not able to volunteer at his children’s schools, attend school events or receive medical or dental care, the lawsuit claims.

By 2002, Garza Cantu had learned of the erroneous court record.

He got the sheriff’s office to fingerprint him, proving he was not the convicted defendant, and the prosecutor’s office filed a motion intended to name the right defendant and correct Garzu Cantu’s criminal history.

However, that order, too, contained errors, the lawsuit alleges. It spelled both men’s first names incorrectly and used Garza Cantu’s date of birth for Gutierrez Cantu.

In spite of a judge’s approval of the court order requested by the prosecutor’s office, the county never took steps to fix the record, according to the lawsuit.

When the lawsuit was filed, the incorrect conviction information remained in a state court database and the State Patrol criminal history system, the complaint alleges.

The lawsuit accuses the county of several charges, including defamation, various forms of negligence and due process violations.

Garza Cantu’s attorney said his client did everything he knew to try to fix the problem over the years before finally seeking legal help.

Gilliland said the problem cost Garza Cantu the best years of his life and will likely stick with him.

“He is going to be defending himself probably for the rest of his life, no matter what happens,” Gilliland said.

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