Identity theft law covers taking from the dead.


Byline: David Donovan

Grave robbing has been a tempting crime for millenniathe victim is in no shape to defend himself, and would seem to have no further use for worldly possessions. Egyptian pyramids were specifically engineered to guard against it, but modern-day thieves are more typically gold-diggers in figurative-but-not-literal sense, seeking instead names and numbers that can be used to appropriate the departed's identity.

Federal law prohibits identity theft, and that statute bars the taking of dead people's identities as well as those of the living, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in a case of first impression. The decision, reversing a ruling by a North Carolina judge, brings the 4th Circuit in line with decisions from other circuits.

Lester George used a dead person's name, date of birth, and Social Security number in an attempt to purchase a home in North Carolina and secure a loan insured by the U.S. government. In 2018, federal prosecutors charged him with, among other things, aggravated identity theft.

George pleaded guilty to all counts, but later moved to withdraw his guilty plea to the identity theft count because the district court had previously held that a defendant couldn't be convicted of that offense if the victim whose identity was stolen was deceased. U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle granted the motion and dismissed the count. George was sentenced to time served on the remaining charge, and the government appealed.

Judge Henry Franklin Floyd, writing for a unanimous 4th Circuit panel in a Jan. 9 decision, overruled Boyle's decision, vacating the order allowing George to withdraw his guilty plea and remanded the case for resentencing.

The statute at issue prohibits stealing the "means of identification of another person," but doesn't define the term "person." Cracking open a dictionary proved less helpful than might be expectedsome dictionary definitions limit a 'person' to a living being, while others don't. Nevertheless, the use of the term in common parlance helps to illustrate its ordinary meaning, Floyd said.

"The word 'person' is generally used to refer to both the living and the dead. That is why, after all, the adjectives of...

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