Montes-Rodriguez v. People

"But sir, this is not a matter of sentiment; it is not a matter of morality; it is not even a matter of right. It is purely and simply a matter of law, and there is no law."

Melville Davisson Post, "The Men of the Jimmy"

The Colorado supreme court recently issued an interesting ruling in the case Montes-Rodriguez v. People that relates to identity theft. It seems that Felix Montes-Rodriguez applied for a car loan using his real name, address, date of birth, and place of employment, but someone else's Social Security number. He was first convicted of "criminal impersonation," but the Colorado supreme court eventually ruled that what he did didn't actually meet the definition of that particular crime and overturned his conviction. Here's what they said:

The supreme court reverses the defendant’s conviction under the criminal impersonation statute, section 18-5-113(1)(e), C.R.S. (2010), because the defendant did not assume a false or fictitious identity or capacity. The court holds that one assumes a false identity by holding one’s self out to a third party as being another person, and that one assumes a false capacity when he or she assumes a false legal qualification, power, fitness, or role. Because the defendant did not hold himself out to be another person when he used another person’s social security number to obtain an automobile loan, and the prosecution presented no evidence that a social security number is a legal requirement to obtain a loan, we reverse the defendant’s conviction.

They went on to say this:

Consistent with previous Colorado case law, we hold that one assumes a false or fictitious capacity in violation of the statute when he or she assumes a false legal qualification, power, fitness, or role. We also reaffirm our earlier holding that one assumes a false identity by holding one’s self out to a third party as being another person. See People v. Alvarado, 132 P.3d 1205, 1207 (Colo. 2006). Applying this holding to the present case, we conclude that Montes-Rodriguez neither assumed a false capacity nor a false identity in violation of the statute.

The prosecution failed to prove the false-capacity element of the crime because it presented no evidence that the law requires loan applicants to have social security numbers. In other words, the prosecution failed to present evidence that a social security number gives one the legal qualification, fitness, or power to receive a loan.

There has been lots of discussion on various blogs about exactly why this ruling is terrible. Some people are even calling for the removal of the judges who made it.

It's easy to understand why people are upset with the outcome of this particular case, but their reason for feeling this way doesn't seem to be easy to defend. It certainly seems to be the case that Mr. Montes-Rodriguez did something that shouldn't be allowed, but what he did apparently wasn't actually a crime, at least as defined by Colorado law. If that's the case, then having his conviction overturned is a good thing. The alternative is to let judges redefine the law on the fly so that it gives the desired outcome, and that's probably a bad idea.   

Should judges have the power to freely redefine crimes to make sure that someone like Mr. Montes-Rodriguez is convicted and punished? Or is enforcing the law as it's actually written a better idea?

I'd much rather see the law changed to make using someone else's Social Security number a crime (which has actually happened in the state of Colorado, but after the incident that Mr. Montes-Rodriguez was involved in) than to see the definition of a crime being redefined at a judge's whim to convict someone who did something that's definitely bad but may not actually have been illegal, and that's what many people seem to be want in this particular case.

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