Jason Reynolds was a finance official at a church in Northwest Washington when he sought a line of credit for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the church’s name. He submitted a corporate resolution that included the names of four church staff members.
Reynolds, according to federal prosecutors, didn’t have permission to use the names. Reynolds was charged with aggravated identity theft—among other crimes—tied to abuses associated with the church’s money. Convicted at trial in Washington federal district court in 2011, Reynolds is now serving an eight-year prison term.
That sentence includes a two-year mandatory minimum for aggravated identity theft. On February 25, Reynolds’ attorney tried to convince a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that prosecutors are overreaching by charging identity theft in the use of a name but not the theft of one. There is no contention that Reynolds tried to pass himself off as someone else.
Judges on the panel weren’t entirely receptive to the argument, however, forcing Reynolds’ attorney, Gary Proctor, to acknowledge he faces an uphill battle. Indeed, defense lawyers haven’t universally fared well pressing similar claims that prosecutors should not be allowed to build identity theft cases around the mere use of a name. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is expected to weigh in later this year. In that case, a developer was convicted for his use of fellow investors’ names on a loan document.
Reynolds was hired as the finance director of the National City Christian Church in Northwest Washington in June 2001. He became the chief financial officer two years later, giving him oversight of the church’s finances—from checks and bills to credit statements.
In the routine course of business, Reynolds used a template corporate resolution that featured the signatures of church officials, his attorney said. Reynolds had several copies of pre-signed resolutions in his office. Reynolds used one of those resolutions in 2006 when he successfully obtained a $100,000 line of credit in the church’s name. He said at trial he had permission to seek that loan.
Reynolds was charged in a 12-count indictment in June 2010 with crimes that include bank and wire fraud, in addition to aggravated identity theft. The ID theft flows from the use of the signatures on the resolutions he used to boost the church’s line of credit to $450,000. Prosecutors contend the church was unaware its credit line was being increased, and that none of the four people whose names appeared on the resolution had given Reynolds permission to include the signatures.
"Mr. Reynolds’ crime is beyond offensive—he stole more than $850,000 from a church, even diverting money intended for a food bank and a battered women’s group," U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. said in a statement in November 2011. "He exploited other people’s charity to fund his extravagant vacations, VIP tickets to NBA games, and fancy cars."
Reynolds isn’t contesting the fraud charges. Rather, he’s fighting the scope of the aggravated identity theft statute. His chief argument is this: there was no theft, no harm, concerning his use of the church officials’ names on the corporate resolution he submitted to the bank, which was then Adams National.
In the D.C. Circuit, Proctor, a solo practitioner in Baltimore, argued that the use of a name is "too attenuated" from the criminal conduct Congress had in mind with the law: punishing scammers who steal identities for personal gain. Hallmark examples include people who steal Social Security numbers and credit card information.
Proctor argued that Congress intended "theft" to carry its common meaning. Reynolds, his attorney said, didn’t steal anything from the four officials whose names were on the corporate resolution submitted to the bank.
"He no more committed ‘theft’ via his conduct than any person who uses corporate letterhead to conduct unauthorized business," Reynolds’s lawyers wrote in a brief in the D.C. Circuit. (Reynolds is also represented by William Purpura of Baltimore’s Purpura and Purpura.)
If the law reaches Reynolds’ conduct, the defense lawyers said, then "any defendant who uses corporate letterhead in the course of a fraud could be subjected to a mandatory minimum sentence of two years for each name on the letterhead, each time it is used."
Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the D.C. Circuit questioned whether there’s any substantive difference between stealing a person’s name and using it without permission. He also noted in court that the law doesn’t come with a "harm requirement" concerning the use of an identity.
An assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, John Gidez, who argued yesterday in the D.C. Circuit, said in court papers that Reynolds "misapprehends" the scope of the law. His conduct, the prosecutor said, "was more than sufficient to sustain his convictions on the aggravated identity theft counts."
The appeals court didn’t immediately rule.
Contact Mike Scarcella at email@example.com.