Police Blotter: Is it legal to use an alias anymore?

Arizona senior citizen sentenced to 10 years for inventing the name "Peter Reynolds" and using it to open bank accounts, pay his monthly bills.

Police Blotter is a weekly News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: Arizona man who invented the name "Peter Reynolds" and used it as an alias appeals his conviction of 10-year prison sentence.

When: Arizona Supreme Court rules on August 30.

Outcome: One of three charges resulting in conviction reversed; his convictions on the other two counts remain intact.

What happened, according to court documents and other sources:
Aliases, pseudonyms and pen names have been commonplace over the years. Take Judy Garland (Frances Gumm), Clive Hamilton (C.S. Lewis), Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), and David Copperfield (David Seth Kotkin). The Federalist Papers urging the ratification of the U.S. Constitution were written by "Publius."

The problem is what happens when someone using a pseudonym in real life runs into relatively new laws intended to protect against identity fraud.

That leads us to the odd case of Peter Sharma, an Arizona senior citizen who was convicted in 1988 of creating false documents but never reported to prison as ordered.

Instead, he went on the lam for the next seven years, living an apparently normal life as "Peter Reynolds" with a good credit history.

He eventually was tracked down and served a prison term from May 1996 until December 2000. Then he was released on probation for five years.

Sharma said that upon his release, though, he had problems doing things like renting an apartment and opening bank accounts. So he reverted back to his Peter Reynolds identity--not in any effort to harm someone, he says, but just to be able to be part of an electronic society where identity has become closely linked to information in government and corporate databases. And thanks to "Peter Reynolds" paying his bills so diligently, that identity had solid credit.

Except for the fact that Sharma wasn't using his legal name and Social Security number, he seemed to be an upstanding citizen. His bills were paid on time. The Social Security number he invented had the same digits as his own but in a different order; he eventually obtained a Florida driver's license, credit and debit cards, checks and a counterfeit Social Security card, all bearing the name Peter Reynolds.

Sharma used them to open bank accounts with Bank of America and Chase Manhattan Bank, obtain credit cards, and obtain utilities--including with Cox Communications--for his apartment. He even began the process of buying a house from Pulte Homes for $242,000.

But eventually, police in Maricopa County, Ariz., found out about his use of the name Peter Reynolds and charged him with three felonies: theft by material representation, unlawful possession of an access device, and taking the identity of another. He was sentenced to concurrent mandatory prison sentences that would lock him up for another 10 years. At the time of his conviction in November 2005 (PDF), he was 70 years old.

After the police began investigating him, the banks froze his account. As a result, Cox Communications was not promptly paid $250 in cumulative monthly fees (details are unclear, but his cable bill may have been taken out of his bank account automatically). Until then, his account with Cox had been paid on time.

Sharma appealed. He claimed there was not enough evidence to convict him of theft and unlawful possession of an access device, and that his prior federal felony convictions were incorrectly used to enhance his sentence. He did not appeal his identity theft conviction.

The Arizona Court of Appeals split the difference. It said that even though the $250 owed Cox was unpaid because the police froze his accounts, the company "suffered a financial loss when defendant ultimately was unable to pay for a portion of the service" and therefore the theft conviction was appropriate.

But the court was more lenient when considering his conviction for unlawful possession of access devices. State law defines "access device" as cards or numbers or passwords that can be used to obtain anything of value. Unlawful possession is defined as possessing without the consent of the owner.

The court said that no evidence showed Sharma possessed an access device without permission of the owner. Nor, the court said, did he obtain anything with them that he had not paid for himself, and reversed his conviction on that count.

Excerpts from Arizona Appeals Court's opinion:
Defendant was charged with knowingly possessing more than five but less than one hundred access devices in violation of A.R.S. Sec. 13-2316.01 (2001). He argues on appeal that the trial court misinterpreted Sec. 13-2316.01(A) and that the evidence does not support his conviction.

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