Local law enforcement agencies have long complained state law is handcuffing investigators in their fight against those who use stolen personal identification information to commit tax fraud. One of their main complaints: State law doesn't allow investigators to immediately charge people they have caught with seemingly obvious signs of identity theft, such as dozens of prepaid debit cards or lists with other people's Social Security numbers. Lawmakers appear to be listening. Legislation that aims to help law enforcement fight identity theft and tax fraud is getting support in both chambers of the Legislature. Bills sponsored in the House by Seminole Republican Larry Ahern and in the Senate by Tampa Democrat Arthenia Joyner were unanimously approved in their first committee stops in the past few days. Other committee stops are scheduled today and Thursday.
The legislation, Ahern said, “gives the authority to law enforcement to put these folks out of business. That's the key. Right now, they're slipping through the cracks. It could only get worse if we don't do something about it now.” The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office sent representatives to Tallahassee to speak in support of the legislation, which officials say would allow law enforcement to arrest suspects found in possession of other people's personal information. Currently, when police and deputies find suspects with ledgers of Social Security numbers and dates of birth or debit cards in other people's names, the officers can only seize the evidence and let the suspects go, hoping to construct a case. Investigators often are unable to obtain needed evidence, such as videos of the suspects using the debit cards or bank records that show the identifying information was illicitly used. So charges are never brought. The proposed changes would allow investigators to immediately arrest and charge suspects who have no legitimate reason to possess the identity information, whether or not there is evidence the information was used. Hillsborough Sheriff's Cpl. Bruce Crumpler said deputies come across such suspects every week. They are able to build cases against only about 10 to 20 percent of suspects. If the proposed legislation is adopted, he said, that figure would change to 70 percent to 80 percent of cases. He cites examples such as a case in February in which a 6-year-old Riverview student had a plastic bag containing 52 debit cards in her backpack. The child pulled the bag out when reaching for her homework. Cpl. Ed Remia told the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee last week that investigators determined the child's mother knew about the cards, but deputies could not charge her. Crumpler also cited the case of a man who was recently shot several times in Tampa. A witness saw the man toss a backpack containing personal identification evidence over a fence before law enforcement arrived. Although deputies retrieved the evidence and the man survived the shooting, investigators were not able to bring charges. Likewise, deputies were unable to charge suspects after they tossed a backpack out of their vehicle during a traffic stop. The backpack contained a laptop computer, ledger of personal identifiers and debit cards. Crumpler said these types of cases arise weekly. The change in the law also would allow for immediate arrests rather than charges months after suspects are encountered, Crumpler said. That, he said, would aid law enforcement officers trying to build cases by encouraging suspects to cooperate immediately when evidence is fresh. The legislation has had a few bumps along the way. Joyner said last fall she was prompted to craft a bill by a joint investigation by The Tampa Tribune and News Channel 8. But after hearing from the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office that the law didn't need to be changed, Joyner shelved her bill. On Tuesday, Joyner said the prosecutors told her the bill was needed after all so she introduced it. Ahern crafted his bill after being contacted by Clearwater police. He said he has changed his bill to reflect language in Joyner's legislation because her bill was more likely to withstand a constitutional challenge by specifying instances when people could legitimately possess identifying information, such as business owners. “At this point, we think we've got a really good bill,” Ahern said. “Our No. 1 job is to protect the citizens.”