They caught him in the act. Why won't he be prosecuted?
November 25, 2008 3:53 PM   Subscribe

Last month, a man broke into my Mom's car (Washington state) while she was hiking and used what he found there to break into her home and steal her identity. He was caught trying to cash one of her checks with her stuff in the backseat. She found out today that the prosecutor has decided not to try him. What can she do?

My Mom was out hiking on a community bike path (nice neighborhood, typically safe) in Washington state- she returned to find a pile of glass where she had parked her car, no car. After the police had come and gone she got a ride home from her hiking partner and discovered that the thief had used the registration to get her address and had broken a window and gotten into the home, rummaged through everything, broken a number of items and stolen more items.

Among others, all her financial records, both computers, every set of key in the house and all of her checkbooks were taken.

An hour later, the bank called my Dad and asked if he/they knew someone was trying to empty the bank account at the local branch. Dad said, "NO!" and the bank employees called the cops. The thief was caught literally red-handed with a bunch of her stuff in the back of his car (though her car had already been vandalized, badly damaged, and abandoned) and arrested that day.

She was able to retrieve the car a week later- it is still in the shop being repaired by the mechanic, covered by insurance of course but she still had a 1k deductible.

The personal property was never recovered with the exception of (phew) the financial records.

The thief is, according to the local police, a young man in his 20's with a long acquaintance with the law in the area. My Mom feels bad for him- she has suggested that she would be willing to drop charges in exchange for community service or something that gets him into a treatment program. But my parents found out today that due to budget problems, the prosecutor is not going to charge the case. Property crimes, according to the local prosecutor, "Are not going to trial at all because a lack of funding in our office" and the thief is going free. No conviction, no trial, not even a plea bargain. She doesn't want to sue him or anything like that, just make sure that justice is served.

I am AGHAST that this has happened to my folks and utterly shocked that having caught the thief literally in the commission of a crime the man will not be charged or brought to trial, no matter what funding problems the state has.

Is there anything my parents can do? My Mom is anxious a lot of the time now, even after getting the locks rekeyed. She still gets the occasional mindnight phone call in which the caller sits on the line, with a tv or noise in the background, then hangs up without saying a word (this started the day of the robbery). She would like at least the name of the person who was arrested, but I doubt the police are at liberty to divulge that information even to the victim.

I suggested she write a letter to the editor of her local newspaper, but is there anything else she can do?
posted by arnicae to Law & Government (34 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I don't mean to be callused, but if this is the service that your family is getting from their state government, your Mom should be suing the state, they've committed a bigger crime against her than this guy has. If she's been living there and paying her taxes like a responsible citizen, they are guilty of not providing her with the services that she has implicitly bought.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:58 PM on November 25, 2008 [4 favorites]

your Mom should be suing the state

Uh, yeah. Good luck with that.
posted by dersins at 4:03 PM on November 25, 2008

What do you mean when you say She doesn't want to sue him or anything like that, just make sure that justice is served?
posted by kidbritish at 4:06 PM on November 25, 2008

If I were she, I'd call the local TV station, I'd call the local paper, I'd raise holy heck. She should call her local city/town council rep. Does the rest of the community know that property crimes are going unprosecuted? And, actually, are they really all going unprosecuted? Because I bet if someone broke into the mayor's house and stole his TV, and the guy got caught, he'd be prosecuted.

Regarding the phone calls: call the phone company and report the calls, and ask them to put a trap on the line (do they still do that?). Still, they may need to change their phone number.

She may also want to contact the three major credit reporting companies, report what happened, and have them flag her accounts.

Good luck, and I'm sorry this happened to them.
posted by rtha at 4:07 PM on November 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

I agree with allkindsoftime. I know that most normal Americans aren't too keen on getting involved with suing or being sued, but this is what suing is for. When you feel you've been wronged and there's no obvious recourse, you sue and let the courts figure out what's fair. Talking to a lawyer about it to get your options can't hurt.

If she really doesn't want to use the legal system to get justice, then I'd recommend contacting every representative she can think of and complaining like crazy.

Bright side: if you really can't get anywhere with it, you are apparently free to break into other people's homes to replace what was lost.

Good luck.
posted by systematic at 4:16 PM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am not your lawyer and this is not legal advice but go see one. I hope that that means more, coming from a lawyer, because damn.

I am so sorry for your trouble. The media will have to be the court in which the prosecutor is tried for this policy.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:30 PM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ugh - that's terrible. Talk to a lawyer. You could go to local media to try to raise outrage about the situation, but I'd recommend talking to a lawyer first.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 5:32 PM on November 25, 2008

Yes, please get as much press coverage for this as possible. Also - please set up neighborhood watch. Once word gets out, people in your community will be sitting ducks. This is awful and needs to be addressed instantly, in a serious way.

Is it just your parents' local community that's affected, or the whole state? I'll understand if you don't want to specify which community, but I do wonder which it is.
posted by amtho at 5:34 PM on November 25, 2008

Please let's not all instantly blame the prosecutor; there are doubtless many factors at work here. I doubt it will be an easy problem to fix. The funding for something like prosecuting property crimes might end up having to come from .... ? Higher taxes? Cutting school arts programs? Roads? We have no idea what's going on here.
posted by amtho at 5:36 PM on November 25, 2008

Local TV will eat this up. It is especially nice that we are currently in November Sweeps. I'd much rather hear about a story like this on the news as opposed to some infinitesimal way a toaster might kill me or my loved ones.
posted by mmascolino at 5:42 PM on November 25, 2008

What do you mean when you say She doesn't want to sue him or anything like that, just make sure that justice is served?

To prevent anyone from responding that she should consult a lawyer, sue the miscreant and/or sue the state.

She was pretty upset that someone broke into her house, and she would like this to be a learning/educational opportunity for the thief. Ergo, she wants him to either go to trial or go before a judge and in return for her not pressing charges get community service or go into a program that will help him with whatever issues he has.

She doesn't want revenge (or money), she wants justice.
posted by arnicae at 6:07 PM on November 25, 2008

Is it just your parents' local community that's affected, or the whole state?

Local police said this is a state-wide policy (Washington state).
posted by arnicae at 6:09 PM on November 25, 2008

Tell your mom to stop feeling bad for this guy. If there aren't any consequences for damaging someone's car, breaking into their house to steal their stuff and trying to empty out their bank account, he will try it again with someone else. She doesn't have to go for blood (personally I think he could do with some jail time) but the guy should at least make good for the damage he's caused and he won't do that without the threat of criminal prosecution. She could sue but I'd worry she'd have a horrible time trying to collect.

My mom got involved in some local politics and for stuff like this, it can be really effective. Call your city or county councilor. They know they will most likely run into you or your friends or neighbors who know about it and don't want to be ranted at. Keep the pressure on by writing a letter to the editor to let other people in the community know that property/theft crimes aren't going to be prosecuted because of budget constraints so if someone steals from you, you're out of luck as far as local government is concerned. Call a TV station that has one of those "Call __ for help".

This should probably get things moving and hopefully the prosecutor will find the money to do his job. People who complain the loudest get better treatment when dealing with government. In this case, I think your mom would be doing everyone who lives around her a big favor to let them know what's going on.
posted by stray thoughts at 6:11 PM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry - sounds like a terrible situation, and I can certainly understand why you and your parents are upset. At the same time, beyond trying to stir up a storm via the local media, local reps, etc., it's unlikely there is much more you or they can do.

U.S. federal and state prosecutors have essentially unreviewable discretion when it comes to choosing whether or not to pursue a particular offense. They do have the power to dismiss a case even when there is sufficient evidence to bring it to trial. Further, courts are extremely reluctant to supervise prosecutors' decisions, especially when that decision is to *not* bring a case (as compared to, for example, arbitrary prosecution on grounds of race, gender, etc.).

On further thought - it might be a long shot, but you might also try to contact the state attorney general's office (which does have, at least in theory, the ability to review the D.A.'s decision not to file charges).
posted by Pontius Pilate at 6:18 PM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is just the sort of thing that letters to the editor are for, and letters to the local news station, if there is one. Failing that, consider talking to local elected officials. This is exactly the sort of thing that local politicians like to use in their campaigns ("I'm tough on crime!"), so you might have some luck there.
posted by msbrauer at 6:40 PM on November 25, 2008

I would contact the local papers and TV stations, to be honest; identity theft is a bit of a trendy topic, and it sounds like the sort of "what the?" story they'd be interested in running.
posted by rodgerd at 7:25 PM on November 25, 2008

She would like at least the name of the person who was arrested, but I doubt the police are at liberty to divulge that information even to the victim.

Arrests are public record; even if the charges were eventually dropped, he was still arrested and your mom should be able to get his name.

I second the call to alert the local media - this is the kind of story they would love to do.
posted by sutel at 7:33 PM on November 25, 2008

She could sue him, probably should. She could seek publicity but if the prosecutor is claiming budget issues he/she may merely welcome this as more fuel for the cause to get more funding. She might also post a blog on the issue with the guy's name, address etc. so that he has some future consequences for his actions, although she would have to be careful of libel etc.

As for the story from the prosecutor, something seems fishy. I can see that they don't go to trial, but that does not mean that they don't get charged, don't plea bargain, etc. She might also want to ratchet this up with the head prosecutor, mayor, etc., perhaps even with some implication that it might come up at re-election time if no action is taken. For a bit of revenge (hardly Christian if that matters) she could then even contact the mayor's and prosecutor's rivals offering to do a commercial in the next election if all else fails.
posted by caddis at 7:49 PM on November 25, 2008

I am a lawyer, but not yours.

Here's what I'd do:

1) Write the District Attorney. Not the prosecutor who gave you that lame excuse, but his boss who has to face the voters every four years. Explain how outraged you are that ADA so-and-so told you the case wouldn't be prosecuted because of lack of funding. Describe the harm that the crime has caused your family. Note that you're considering speaking to the local newspapers and TV stations about this and are considering hiring a lawyer to explore your options. (My strong suspicion is that you have no legal recourse against the prosecutor or the state, but you should talk to a local lawyer anyway just to make sure.)

2) If that doesn't work, go to the press and do the following:

3) Write your local city councilman, the mayor, and the state attorney general. Ask the first two for political pressure, ask the latter if there's anything he can do regarding prosecution (probably not, but each state's different).

4) Write the local U.S. Attorney. The feds have far more resources than local prosecutors. I doubt that the guy violated any federal laws during his escapade but given the sheer number of federal criminal laws on the books, he could have. Maybe he crossed state lines with your car? Maybe he was a felon in possession of a firearm? Maybe he was caught with some drugs? Even if none of that's the case, they could charge him with something totally unrelated. For instance, this guy doesn't sound like someone who's paid his income taxes recently.

If your mom doesn't want to sue, fine. He probably doesn't have a pot to piss in. But I still can't understand her sympathy. If this guy has as much experience with the criminal justice system as you say he does, he's probably never going to learn his lesson---even if he is sent to jail for this.
posted by saslett at 8:00 PM on November 25, 2008 [4 favorites]

I live in Baltimore, a city with hundreds of homicides every year, and yet when my home was burglarized, they prosecuted. It's pretty outrageous that a crime in a "nice neighborhood, typically safe" would not be. What are they spending their resources on if not property crimes? Is there so much violent crime in this nice neighborhood that it takes up the entire budget? It seems fishy to me (though I am very much a non-expert) and that something else must be going on here that they might not be telling your mom.

A courts (or maybe even cops) reporter at your local paper should be able to tell you, "Yeah, they're not prosecuting property crimes. It's pretty absurd" if it's true.
posted by Airhen at 8:06 PM on November 25, 2008

I agree with caddis. I don't believe the "budget" excuse. "We can't prosecute because we fucked up the case somehow" seems much more likely. Check the crime blotter of the local paper and see if people are still getting canned for possession of marijuana.
posted by Crotalus at 8:11 PM on November 25, 2008

Whoops. I totally forgot about the bank part of your mom's story! (Chalk it up to being tired.) In that case, it's very likely that he violated at least one federal law. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking possible violations of:

18 U.S.C. 1028(a)(7): identity-theft related fraud
18 U.S.C. 1344: bank fraud
18 U.S.C. 1029(a)(2): access-device related fraud
18 U.S.C. 1030: computer fraud (depending what he did with your mom's computers)

Of course, I'm not an AUSA. You should still talk to the feds.
posted by saslett at 8:21 PM on November 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

Only other thing I'd wonder about is if the insurance company that paid for the damage wouldn't want to be involved. This is horrible, and I hope something gets done. Long ago my family's house was broken into, and the criminals were never caught. It seems like that when they do catch someone they'd want to put them away...
posted by Eekacat at 8:42 PM on November 25, 2008

It's true. The cops don't go after this kind of crime, by and large. Regardless of what the law says. It's just too complicated for them to figure out. They'd much rather go after penny-ante street drug dealers who are busted and replaced within the hour.

I had two ID theft crimes against me last year in which the thieves used 1) my credit card information and 2) my checking account information (both stolen from my mailbox) to PAY HOUSEHOLD BILLS! Yes, that's right, they paid their household bills (power and CATV) with my (now recovered) money. There was no police action on these cases at all, despite the fact that they knew which accounts under which names had been paid with my money.

I get the impression that unless the case is for very large amounts of money, or very large numbers of offenses by the same person, the police just don't care.

Hear that criminals? A risk free area of crime for y'all. (Just don't get too greedy now, hear?)
posted by telstar at 8:44 PM on November 25, 2008

Yeah, but telstar, the cops did go after this guy, and caught him, and arrested him. It's the DA's office that has declined to prosecute.
posted by rtha at 8:56 PM on November 25, 2008

Thus explaining why the police eventually don't even bother to try to arrest people. arnicae's case involved a couple of burglaries (not just mail theft, [a federal crime by the way]), but I'll bet that dollar amount involved was probably greater in my cases. Especially when adding in the ding on my wife's CC. Total stolen: maybe about 7 grand.

A few weeks after the checking account incident I got a call from my bank's "fraud investigation unit". Oh, boy, I thought, here we go. The woman on the line's sole communication to me was to triumphantly tell me that since her department didn't consider the incident "identity theft" they weren't going to bother with it. Bye. Click.
posted by telstar at 10:23 PM on November 25, 2008

Agree with saslett, plus add to the list your representatives and senators (both state and federal).
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:16 PM on November 25, 2008

In whatever letters you may write, remember to compare funding per capita of the population, and funding per successful prosecution to other neighbouring jurisdictions.

The DA saying "we can't afford to prosecute" is less convincing if you show they are in fact funded at the normal level.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:15 AM on November 26, 2008

She was pretty upset that someone broke into her house, and she would like this to be a learning/educational opportunity for the thief. Ergo, she wants him to either go to trial or go before a judge and in return for her not pressing charges get community service or go into a program that will help him with whatever issues he has.

She doesn't want revenge (or money), she wants justice.

Justice, in this case, would involve prosecuting the person who broke the law and meting out appropriate punishment. Teaching this person a lesson by letting him off with community service? Not prosecuting/suing him at all? Well, that's a heck of a "learning/educational opportunity for the thief", indeed.

Saslett is the one to listen to here. Demanding a criminal caught in the act isn't "revenge", it's appropriate social behavior. There's a reason that telstar and I both have an awareness (telstar firsthand, me secondhand) that people can pay their personal bills with stolen information without being prosecuted; it's because such crime is on the rise because it's not being prosecuted. Don't feed into that, and don't accept it.
posted by davejay at 12:51 AM on November 26, 2008

Small claims court? There's a ceiling of $4,000.00 in Washington State.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:46 AM on November 26, 2008

She doesn't want revenge (or money), she wants justice.

Then she needs to sue him. Sorry, I know that's not the answer she's looking for, but it's the way things work.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:35 AM on November 26, 2008

she would like this to be a learning/educational opportunity for the thief

It already has been: he learned that he can commit crimes and get away with it there. Tell her to stop feeling sorry for that piece of shit, get a lawyer, and call the news.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:28 AM on November 26, 2008

What davejay, peanut_mcgillicuty, and Optimus Chyme said. I have to admit I lost much of the considerable sympathy I had felt for your mom when I read that bit about her wanting the criminal to have a "learning/educational opportunity." That's seriously screwed-up thinking, almost as bad as the prosecutor's bullshit budget excuse. (I've been burglarized, twice, and the cops did nothing; I would have been happy to see the assholes who did it get their learning/educational opportunity in jail.)
posted by languagehat at 7:45 AM on November 26, 2008

Go talk to the prosecutor. Encourage her to pursue the case. If he's resistant, gently suggest that the media is interested. It should be an easy, therefore cheap, prosecution. If the thief doesn't experience consequences, he'll continue thieving. Is the thief, by any chance, connected to someone powerful/wealthy?
posted by theora55 at 8:16 AM on November 26, 2008

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