Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Wrong Men

In Alfred Hitchcock's classic film The Wrong Man, one character, Lieutenant Bowers, confidently stated, "An innocent man has nothing to fear, remember that." Two recent reports from the United Kingdom and the United States show that, even in a world of high-tech law enforcement, innocent men have something to fear when criminals turn them into victims of identity theft. In the United Kingdom, Friday's London Times recounted the case of Roderick Rigby, a 51-year-old Lancashire upholsterer, who "received 52 summonses for driving offences that he says he did not commit" and was convicted and fined in his absence -- sometime even when he was on vacation.

According to the Times, Rigby started receiving mailed notices of fines for driving offenses, though the notices were for people with different names. He also learned that people were registering cars under his name and then accumulating parking and speeding tickets. In May 2004, he himself was arrested after someone named Royle, who was wanted for driving a car without a license or insurance, gave Rigby's address. The arresting officer apparently cautioned Rigby in the "names of Royle or Rigby". [A note on United Kingdom criminal law: A "caution" means that the suspect must go to a police station, where a senior police officer formally addresses the suspect and warns him or her about the alleged conduct and the consequences if the suspect commits a further offense. The caution is then recorded in writing. According to the U.K. Criminal Justice System Online website, a caution is not a conviction, but "can be put before a court if the suspect is convicted of another offence."] After the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency confirmed to magistrates that Rigby was not the offender, the caution was expunged from the record.

Nonetheless, later in 2004 a driver stopped for speeding somehow knew Rigby's name and address and gave them to police, along with a close approximation of Rigby's date of birth. When the driver failed to show up at a police station to produce his driver's license, insurance certificate, and vehicle registration, as required under U.K. law, Rigby received a summons ordering him to appear in court. He also started to receive other parking tickets and speeding fines, and had to appear nine times in court just on the initial summons. In another case, a court threatened him with contempt of court when he tried to explain that his was a case of mistaken identity. A conviction on one charge gave Rigby a £540 fine and six points on his license. His barrister later estimated that contesting the charges cost Rigby £30,000. Subsequently, Rigby was present at a hearing on one of the charges against him, when he heard a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prosecutor tell the court "that the defendant was excused from appearing in person because he was in prison for wounding." In a scene that would seem implausible in a B-movie, Rigby jumped to his feet and said, “No, I am not. I’m here.” Ultimately, a judge stated "that heads would roll at the CPS if it could not explain the matter."

A CPS spokeswoman later stated that the suggestion that Rigby was in prison for a wounding was "an administrative error," evidently due to the fact that Rigby had been confused with a real prisoner, Roderick James Rigby, who was serving a 14-month prison sentence. The spokeswoman confirmed that the Rigby in prison and the Rigby in court were not the same man.

Today's Washington Post reported the case of Elias Fishburne IV, a hairdresser from Maryland who was mistakenly arrested after a traffic accident in which he was involved. More than a decade ago, Fishburne had lost his Navy identification before shipping out for Desert Storm. On his return, he found that someone had bought thousands of dollars of furniture, clothing, and cellphones in his name. In the case of a $4,000 furniture purchase, a letter from his former captain, swearing that Fishburne was at sea at the time of the purchase, apparently cleared up the matter.

On May 5, 2005, however, Fishburne was arrested after his accident by a Maryland state trooper, after a Georgia arrest warrant listed Elias Fishburne as one of several aliases used by a career criminal, Jarvis Tucker. Even though, according to Fishburne, a booking officer at the county jail could see that Fishburne's date of birth, height, weight, and facial features were clearly different from those of Tucker, another officer dismissed the doubt and Fishburne was processed.

Over the next 37 days that Fishburne spent in custody, the criminal justice system repeatedly fell short in the fundamental task of verifying that Fishburne was indeed the man Georgia was seeking. According to the Post, the arresting officer did not perform a required computer check in the National Crime Information Center computer "because the computer system was out of service." Five Maryland law enforcement and corrections agencies and the Georgia sheriff responsible for the warrant regarded someone else as responsible for confirming Fishburne's identity. Fishburne was advised to waive extradition to Georgia without being told that waiver, in effect, would suggest that he was the person being sought. Even after arriving in Georgia for processing at the Fulton County jail, and the booking officer taking his fingerprints could see the prints of Tucker on her computer screen, she reportedly agreed that "[i]t doesn't add up" but continued to process him.

Thirty-six hours after his arrival at the jail, a background check by Fulton County authorities finally showed that they had the wrong man. Fishburne was released with no cash, no apologies, and no ticket home. Authorities did give him an $80 check to refund money that his mother and friends had deposited in a jail commissary account. The check was made out to Jarvis Tucker.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just as in the case of financial identity theft, this article seems to suggest that sloppiness and laziness are chief enablers of criminal identity theft as well. Banks and other businesses often don't do enough to verify the identity of someone trying to open a new account. But if a cop stops you for a traffic stop, and you don't produce any ID but just provide identifying information, this article seems to suggest that it is not uncommon for the police to simply accept the information at face value without verifying it.

Businesses should be required to do more to verify identities before opening new accounts, and apparently law enforcement should be required to do more to verify identities before arresting people.

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