Charged but never arrested: How police allowed a Leicester woman's ID to be stolen
WLOS Asheville —
Imagine finding out you're charged with shoplifting, or worse, finding out only after a warrant's issued for your arrest.
That's because you were never arrested, but someone who used your name was.
A News 13 investigation found this scenario can happen right in front of police if someone without an ID can convince police they're you.
Not only could you be charged, but it's up to you to clear your name.
When News 13 asked how common the problem of false identities is and Asheville police, the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office, the District Attorney's office and the Clerk of Court said this is more common than you think.
“Sleepless nights, many sleepless nights,” Rhalina Eckley said. What's keeping Eckley up isn't directly related to her job as an insurance agent, but could have a huge impact.
“All of my clients that received the mobile patrol 'ding' that morning. It had no picture, it just had my name,” Eckley said.
An app called "Mobile Patrol" alerts you when someone is arrested. December 5 it showed Eckley’s name.
“It just said I was arrested for larceny,” Eckley recalled.
But Eckley hadn't been arrested.
“I was just...I got very scared,” said Eckley.
The Eckleys went straight to the Asheville Police Department.
“The arresting officer came out, and it was apparent that he knew that it was a mistake,” Eckley said.
When Rhalina saw the mug shot, now attached to the charges, it wasn’t a stranger’s face. She knew this woman posing as her.
“I do, yes, and it's very scary because I've not communicated with this woman in over 17 years,” Eckley said.
It was a high school classmate who lives nearby. She was arrested at the Asheville Mall for shoplifting. She told police she didn't have her ID. Instead, she rattled off Rhalina's information as her own.
News 13 asked if an officer should just take somebody's word for it when someone tells them who they are.
“No, they should take extra steps to confirm or verify who they're talking to. Just because someone can spout off a name and date of birth, we should still take extra steps,” Asheville Police Lieutenant Joseph Sorrells said.
In-car laptops make those steps possible.
“We can ask for scars, marks and tattoos. We have several databases that we can consult looking for other identifying factors,” explained Sorrells.
This includes North Carolina’s Driver’s License database. News 13 asked, but APD hasn't said if it was searched in this case.
“My picture on my driver's license still looks nothing like her,” said Eckley.
But if officers didn't catch it, certainly the booking process at the Buncombe County Jail should. That’s not necessarily the case as the suspects are brought before a magistrate to face their charges.
“If you're an officer who has doubts about the information you're being given, such as they've given you a name, we've looked at a photo, it doesn't look like them, we would present all of that information to the magistrate,” Buncombe County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Randy Sorrells said.
A magistrate then decides if producing ID might be a condition of release.
“If they're going to be released on a bond, we would fingerprint and photograph them right before they left,” said Lt. Randy Sorrells, with the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office.
Unlike TV crime dramas, fingerprint results aren't immediate and can take as little as 24 hours to be returned.
“It could be a day; it could be longer,” Lt. Randy Sorrells explained.
Before the jail could get the results back, which did find other prints in the system for this individual, the suspect walked out the front door of the Buncombe County Jail after signing Rhalina's maiden name, free to do whatever she wanted.
“Because I was a good person and didn't have a bad record, she got to go,” said Eckley.
Police have made attempts to contact the suspect. News 13 did, as well, without success.
Three weeks later, Eckley's name is still online with the charge, but police added the suspect's picture.
“To digitally upload something in less than five (minutes), but no one can take it down is bothersome,” Eckley said.
Because the Eckley's have a teenage foster son, it's made clearing up the mistake critical.
“Producing proof, to show that this is not me. Please don't disrupt this child's life. That has been stressful for me,” Eckley said.
News 13 questioned why the charges against Rhalina couldn't just be dropped.
“If they've already been charged, then it would have to go through the DA's office to get that charge dismissed,” said Lt. Joseph Sorrells of Asheville Police.
According to the DA, Eckley will need to have the record expunged,
“I try to understand that I'm not the only one they're dealing with, and it's probably in line, but I do feel as though since it was a mistake, that go ahead and clear me,” said Eckley.
With the paperwork, it could take a month. The cost for Eckley is less than $5. It's you the taxpayer who picks up the court costs, in hundreds of dollars.
News 13 questioned whether the system is broken in some ways.
“I wouldn't say the system is necessarily broken. I think there's the systems (that) are in place but may require a little legwork by the officer in the field,” said Lt. Joseph Sorrells, of Asheville Police.
Eckley feels differently.
“It's broke. There's obviously a glitch in the system,” said Eckley.
When News 13 made a public records request for the number, Asheville Police said it's happened nine times in the past year, and that doesn't include expunged or fixed cases they can't track.
While the News 13 was at the Buncombe County Jail, crews witnessed it happening during an intake process. This time, jail personnel knew this wasn’t the man’s correct name and caught the issue.
Police said it’s often a family member, a close friend or someone with easy access to your personal information that will use your identity.
The problems of ID theft can be compounded when the victim whose identity is compromised doesn't find out as quickly as Rhalina did. An officer may have no choice but to arrest them if they’re stopped for a traffic violation and then find out there’s a warrant out for their arrest. The courts would then sort it out.
If you think that this sounds like the perfect crime, think twice before using someone else ID. It can mean felony charges and tougher penalties if the victim is arrested.