PHOENIX (AP) _ Maricopa County’s top attorney says an aggressive prosecution
tool that can leave illegal immigrants stranded in jail for months before the
cases go to trial has helped reduce Arizona’s record identity theft issues.
County Attorney Bill Montgomery said the prosecutions abide by state law. His
remarks followed allegations Friday that his office has brought excessive
charges against immigrants with false documents while letting college students
with fake IDs off the hook.
Under state law, illegal immigrants found with fake identification documents
can face felony charges of forgery and false identity that bar them from posting
bail. Illegal immigrants convicted of felonies are turned over to federal
immigration officials once the criminal case is resolved. Serious criminal
convictions can make it nearly impossible for a person to obtain legal status in
the United States.
Immigration activists say it’s unfair to charge working immigrants with
felonies, while college students found with fake IDs at bars rarely face
The charges against illegal immigrants are an “unconscionable application of
the law,” attorney Antonio Bustamante said during a news conference organized
by the League of United Latin American Citizens outside Superior Court Friday
The activists demanded less severe penalties, saying the arrests can result in
months of jail time.
“Evenhanded justice is all we are asking for,” said lawyer David Cutrer, who
recently represented a man charged with identity theft and forgery after being
arrested during a job-site raid. The 72-year-old warehouse worker spent six
months in jail waiting for his trail to begin, Cutrer said. He was found not
guilty, Cutrer said.
Montgomery quickly scheduled his own press conference to defend his office. He
denied that his office had sought the serious charges to ensure immigrants would
be turned over to federal officials and deported.
“We target conduct,” Montgomery said. “We don’t target people.”
Employment-related fraud makes up the majority of Arizona’s identity theft
complaints, compared to bank fraud, credit card fraud and government benefits
fraud. Since 2008, employment-related fraud complaints have dropped from nearly
3,000 cases to fewer than 1,000 in 2011, according to Montgomery.
Arizona was first in the nation for identity theft complaints in 2008, but
dropped to fourth in 2011.
In 2006, Arizona voters approved a law that denied bail to illegal immigrants
charged with serious crimes, such as kidnapping, human smuggling and gang
Montgomery said identity theft is as serious a crime as those dangerous
offenses because victims can spend months clearing their identity.
“The harm can be very real,” he said.
Montgomery said the state’s identity theft law prohibits using the statute to
prosecute offenders under the age of 21.
People arrested for identity theft spend 90 days in jail on average while
waiting for the case to be resolved, Montgomery said. In the majority of cases,
suspects agree to a plea bargain for a lesser crime.
Montgomery said he doesn’t initially charge immigrants with the lesser crime,
which would allow them to post bail, because he wants to deter other offenders.
In all, 312 people were convicted of employment-related identity theft last
year, Montgomery said.
The immigration proponents said they called attention to the issue after Tempe
police put out a press release this week boasting that more than 1,700 fake IDs
used by minors were seized in 2012.
“We say, `oh, they are just kids being kids,”’ Cutrer said, noting that
illegal immigrants are not afforded the same treatment.
Cristina Silva can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/cristymsilva