Can a pen name protect me from legal repercussions in writing a personal nonfiction book based on previous petty crimes?
April 7, 2010 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Can a pen name protect me from legal repercussions in writing a personal nonfiction book based on previous petty crimes?

Hello, I'm considering writing a book and am curious about what sort of precautions to take. The books I want to write is nonfiction and based on some petty crimes I committed in my late teens and early twenties - i.e. a DVD player breaks so I buy the same one from Target/Walmart and then return my broken one for my money back. Or selling pirated software for a short while in the early 2000s. I want this to be an informational book w/ some illustrations that is sort of an exposition of loopholes and system flukes. (Minor ones). Kind of like this series I saw a few years back on the History channel that chronicled the Casino kings and how they duped casinos w/ fake money, card counting, etc. I never got into legal trouble with any of the things I did and haven't messed with any of it for years.

BUT, with all this said, really think the subject would be really interesting and marketable. Naturally, I don't want to use my real name, but even writing under a pseudonym I am concerned about any legal issues that could come back on me.

Should I can this idea, or is there some other feasible way to go about it? I don't want to write the book as a fictional story, but more or less like a series of 10 petty crimes, and informational detail on how they were done. But, like I said, is there a way to protect myself from any legal pursuit? Especially since (from my very limited knowledge) you must somehow link your pen name with your legal name.

Please do not judge me! I am only asking for advice and insight. Thanks in advance.
posted by kleenkat to Writing & Language (8 answers total)
 
What legal problems are you looking to insulate yourself from?
posted by craven_morhead at 12:50 PM on April 7, 2010


How long ago was this, and was it all in the same state? If the answer is a long time ago, then check with a lawyer (or several if in multiple states). Statute of limitations may have expired, in which case you wouldn't even need a pen-name.

Could a pen-name protect you? Well, it will make the prosecutor have to go to some effort to track you down, so in a practical sense, maybe. But if they were really interested in going after you, they could use search warrants/subpoenas (I'm a lawyer, but not a criminal lawyer, so not sure of the exact terminology), to force publisher to identify you.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 12:51 PM on April 7, 2010


It won't shield you if they want you. Subpoena the publisher and boom your name is in the prosecutor's hands. Since these were all petty crimes I am not sure why any prosecutor would bother, unless the book becomes very successful and there is a general outcry for blood from the public. I would guess that the statute of limitations has passed for most of these acts but you would want to check with a local criminal law attorney for the details.
posted by caddis at 12:57 PM on April 7, 2010


The best way to protect yourself from being charged with crimes is to never, ever leave any record or talk to anyone about potential activity you may have been involved in that you are concerned was criminal in nature. There is only one person you can tell about your involvement in crimes without worry of the repercussions: A criminal lawyer you have hired to represent you. A pen name might create an additional barrier to prevent anyone in law enforcement from bothering to figure out who you are and whether it's worth their time to investigate or charge you with crimes, but it's only a small preventative measure, and there's no way you could rely on it to protect you.

If you're concerned about the liability for your previous actions, hire a lawyer. Make sure the lawyer is capable of advising you on state law for all relevant jurisdictions AND federal law that may be implicated (piracy, etc). Statute of limitations may or may not protect you, depending on the jurisdiction involved. This is why you need a lawyer. If you go without a lawyer, you might be fine, but then again you might screw yourself over. This is not legal advice, I am not your lawyer and your idea sounds disastrous.
posted by Happydaz at 1:02 PM on April 7, 2010


i.e. a DVD player breaks so I buy the same one from Target/Walmart and then return my broken one for my money back . . . I want this to be an informational book w/ some illustrations that is sort of an exposition of loopholes and system flukes.

So who would be the audience? The general public, or do you think CEOs and Operations people would learn something from it? Because FWIW, any person who works or has worked in retail, from CEOs to cashiers, knows this. And so many, many more imaginative and multi-step tricks like it. At some point, the loophole is so small that the cost to close it outweighs the benefit.

So it's not that no one knows. They know there will always be this kind of activity by (restraining self) people like you, and they account for it.
posted by peep at 1:11 PM on April 7, 2010


Peep,

I the DVD return example was just something really simple. I didn't want to spill the elaborate, multi-stepped tricks here. And yeah it's not anything new to the CEO or operations people. More or less the general public. A targeted audience will come later; I was just wondering about the pen name issue first. Does this sound disastrous?
posted by kleenkat at 1:31 PM on April 7, 2010


I work in publishing.

First, pen names are NOT (I repeat NOT) secure. NOT AT ALL. If the media/bloggers don't figure out who you are, the publisher will out you if subpoenaed. Second, publishers hate them and without a really good reason (like, you are a public figure who needs to protect your privacy, or you are a mega bestselling author who wants to try a different genre) they won't allow you to use a pen name.

Besides, books with illegal activity in them are published all the time. Check with a lawyer regarding the statute of limitations and write away.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 2:39 PM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Check out Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief by Bill Mason. I think he mentions that the statute of limitations had expired on everything he wrote about, but I bet he sat he sat his ass down with a lawyer for a long time before putting pen to paper.
posted by IanMorr at 3:16 PM on April 7, 2010


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