Legislation to help law enforcement arrest identity thieves is expected to soon become law after the Senate gave its stamp of approval Friday.
The Senate unanimously approved the bill sponsored by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. Joyner filed the legislation following a joint investigation by The Tampa Tribune and News Channel 8 into problems law enforcement has had bringing charges against suspects found with ledgers and medical records with other people’s names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers.
The Senate’s vote comes days after the House of Representatives unanimously approved a companion bill sponsored by Seminole Republican Rep. Larry Ahern.
Because of a difference between the two bills, the House must vote again on the Senate version next week before sending it to the desk of Gov. Scott.
“I’m really pleased that it passed unanimously and I’m sure that when it goes back to the House, I’m positive that they will do it again and send it over to the governor,’’ Joyner said.
Sen. Charles Dean, R-Inverness, praised Joyner for the measure. “To me this is one of the most effective bills that has been filed this year,” he said in early debate Thursday. “I want to commend you. Stealing people’s personal information is about as personal a violation as I can imagine.”
Joyner authored the bill after seeing reports about law enforcement having to let suspects go even after finding them in possession of Social Security numbers or other forms of personal identification for multiple other people.
State prosecutors were reluctant to bring charges without proof that the information had been used to commit fraud.
Authorities said law enforcement officers have encountered this kind of evidence routinely in the last two years as stolen identity tax refund fraud has exploded in the Tampa area. An inspector general report determined thieves used stolen identities to file bogus tax returns to obtain an estimated $400 million in fraudulent tax refunds in one year alone. Nationally, the criminals are stealing billions from federal taxpayers every year.
Sometimes, officers who found the evidence were able to build cases months after their first encounter with suspects, but law enforcement often could not find enough evidence to satisfy prosecutors’ interpretation of existing state law.
The legislation passed by the Senate on Friday removes the legal requirement of proof of fraudulent intent - something law enforcement says is needed to allow for immediate arrests of suspects when they are discovered.
Under the bill, it would be illegal to knowingly possess without authorization certain personal information of another person. The measure would make it a misdemeanor to possess information belonging to four or fewer people and a third-degree felony for possession of five or more.
The bill would allow the defense that the person reasonably thought he or she was legally entitled to possess the information or had consent. It would continue to be legal to possess information that was obtained from a public record.
The legislation also provides specific exceptions such as parents with their children’s information and employees of companies that have the information as part of conducting business.
The bill also contains a more limited definition of personal identification than previous law, applying only to Social Security numbers, official state- or federal-government-issued issued driver licenses or identification numbers, alien registration numbers, passport numbers, employer or taxpayer identification numbers, Medicaid or food assistance account numbers, bank account numbers, credit or debit card numbers, and medical records.
The bill would not apply to the possession of names, addresses, phone numbers and birth dates.