We recently won a dismissal in a Snohomish County case involving a client charged with theft from a local store. The store manager had observed the suspect selecting a lot of merchandise, and concealing it. The manager called the police, who caught and arrested the suspect at the store. Because the value of the merchandise taken was less than $750, the police considered the crime a misdemeanor and did not take the arrested person to jail. The police took down the suspect’s information from an expired driver’s license the suspect provided, and told the suspect that she’d be getting criminal charges and a court date mailed to her. Pretty standard situation, one that happens every day in this (and probably every other) state.
Only problem was, the shoplifting suspect used someone else’s ID. Our client’s ID. An old expired ID that the client had lost a year before, and had forgotten about.
When our client called us for help, she was in an absolute panic. She had just received notice that she was being charged with a crime, and for what? Theft? She’d never stolen anything in her life, she had no criminal record, she was a student at a local university, and she didn’t even live in the city that accused her of stealing, she’d never even been to that city, or to the store! She was a veteran who had served honorably in the Navy too. A false accusation like this could have huge impacts on her life. What could be done?
Part of the problem was that the police just took a casual look at the ID provided by the suspect. It was an old ID and the photo didn’t match up with the suspect too well, but that’s pretty common. But the police didn’t book the suspect into jail, so there was no booking photo taken by the jail that we could reference to prove our client wasn’t the same person who was arrested. And the police didn’t snap a photo of the person they arrested either, which is very common so that mistaken identity cases like this one don’t occur. So it was just our client’s word against that of the police and store witnesses.
In the end we were able to convince the prosecutor that our client’s background, residence, and physical description didn’t match up with that of the suspect in this case, and also that the surveillance video that the store did have (while not showing the face of the suspect) was clear enough to demonstrate that the person arrested could not have been our client. Finally, the getaway car that the suspect used was not connected to our client either. That was enough to show that the suspect and our client weren’t the same person, and the government dismissed the case.
Two things about this case were chilling to us.
1. This case was a scary reminder of the power of the government to interfere in the lives of ordinary people not connected with crime in any way. Our client was 100% innocent, but because she had lost her ID about a year before this, someone had picked it up with the intent to use it to commit crimes and evade accountability. Imagine if our office hadn’t been able to persuade the prosecution to drop the case – what then? The client would have had to have a jury trial, where it’s possible the jury could have wrongly convicted the client. After all, the client would have testified that it wasn’t her in the store, and the police officer and store manager might have testified that it was her. If the jury believed the police, our client could have been wrongly convicted and gone to jail for something she didn’t do. That would have been a huge injustice! People are wrongly accused of crime all the time, and that’s where a good defense lawyer can make the difference between freedom and incarceration.
2. This could happen to anyone. People lose their ID all the time. Sometimes a driver’s license or checkbook or credit cards are taken by thieves and later used in crimes. That’s why, if you lose your ID or something is taken from you that can be used to commit a crime, you should file a police report. Our client in the case didn’t do this, she just didn’t think anything about what could happen (in her case, it was an expired ID and she had a new, valid one she was using). If she had filed a police report though, that would have helped to prove that her identity was being used by someone trying to get away with a crime. The next best thing to filing a police report is to request a new/updated ID right away. At least the record of the request to the licensing or other government agency will be preserved, and could be helpful down the road in proving that you weren’t the one who committed a crime like our client had to do. Make a record of what was lost, and when, so you can’t be held responsible for crimes committed using that information.
Our client was the victim, but wasn’t treated like one. In the end, we proved her innocence and she was able to get back to living her life.