Interviewer: If you take someone’s personal information but you don’t use it to buy anything, is still considered a theft for the time that you have it?
Sam Sachs: It depends on the circumstances. If I overhear you saying it and I hear it, that doesn’t make it a crime. But if I use it, it becomes a crime.
So if I know your birthday, and I know your legal name, I know where you live, and I know your driver’s license number, there’s nothing illegal about that unless I obtained it surreptitiously. If I use it it’s another story.
Interviewer: Do you get people that use their fake IDs to get into a bar or a club or anything?
Sam Sachs: Oh my gosh. You know if I had a nickel for every bust there was for some dope making fake IDs for college kids I’d be a millionaire. It’s been going on as long as I’ve been practicing law. They busted one ring of guys that was just churning out so many documents it was ridiculous.
That’s one of the reasons actually after 9/11 the feds started to coerce the states into making much more secure documents. We have laser identification and logos. It’s the same way that they’re trying to tighten up the money so that it can’t be counterfeited. They’re doing the same thing with documents, passports, and driver’s licenses, because they were so easily duplicated and manufactured. They’re trying to put all kinds of security measures in them so that they can’t do that anymore.
If you look at the new $100 bill, you’ll see that they used shaded colors and then they have stripes embedded and watermarks and laser identification. They’re doing the same thing with credit cards.
Interviewer: What about misrepresenting who you are with someone else’s ID?
Sam Sachs: Yes, that is theft. You drop your wallet, I pick up your credit card, and I go in and buy myself a box of cigars. It’s theft. I took your card and it’s fraud. I mean I’m not who I represented myself to be.
In the old days it wasn’t so much credit cards; it was getting into a home and taking somebody’s checks. Someone’s in your house for whatever reason to provide a service, or for some reason she has your checkbook, takes a check out, and makes it out to a store and signs it, and they don’t scrutinize checks the way you might think. That’s absolutely theft.
Interviewer: So in the case of maybe using information, what if there is no person whose ID you stole, but it’s manufactured from nothing? Would that still be considered a crime?
Sam Sachs: Well, using false credentials is a separate crime. It’s not a theft. It depends on what you do with it. If I make myself a driver’s license that is obviously bogus and doesn’t look like a New Jersey driver’s license, it’s a novelty item and I haven’t done anything wrong. If it looks like a New Jersey driver’s license, has a purported name, address, and my photograph on it and I fake a drivers license number and I presented it to someone to obtain liquor or because I got stopped for a motor vehicle stop, then because I used it to identify myself, that’s absolutely a crime.
Interviewer: What is it about your experience that makes you particularly suited to help defend people on these kinds of crimes?
Sam Sachs: We have a policy of making sure that the prosecutors and courts see these are not just files. They’re people. I make a great effort to find out what’s going on in my client’s life, what their conflicts are, maybe what produced the act, and to humanize them. It’s easy to convict a file; it’s harder to convict a human being.
My attitude is I need to make sure the prosecutor and the court know that this is a living, breathing person who maybe is taking care of an elderly mother, maybe going through horrible stress because they’ve had some catastrophic medical conditions, or maybe they have a child who was killed in a car accident. Who knows? But they’re not just files and names. When I used to teach judges at the judicial conference, I would always say when they become files instead of people, it’s time to get off the bench. That’s one issue.
The other issue is if you work within the system long enough you get to know what prosecutors will and won’t do, what they can’t do, and what makes a difference to the victims. That helps in preparing the cases as well as you possibly can to get the best outcome. Sometimes it’s about how harsh the punishment is going to be. Other times it’s about being very tough about saying the State can’t prove their case and not being afraid to do that. We don’t look for the easy out. We look for the best outcome we can obtain. Again, it depends on what the circumstances are. It’s easy to take every case and take an easy plea bargain “Just quick bargaining, take the fee, and go home.” That’s not how we built our reputation.