By Natasha Feuerstein
SACRAMENTO, CA – Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Laurie Earl Tuesday maintained that the case before her was the most sophisticated case of identity theft the court has seen, not only because of the number of victims with identifying information about them, but also the detail of that information.
Due in part to this level of sophistication, Judge Earl was not willing to reduce the felony charge of identity theft against defendant Celeste Perez to a misdemeanor, nor was she willing to waive the holding order against Perez.
The defendant faces a felony charge for identity theft and two misdemeanor charges for the possession of methamphetamine and the possession of drug paraphernalia.
Officers said they searched the defendant, and initially did not find anything on her person. But when they asked Perez if there was anything in the vehicle, she admitted that she had her “meth and pipe stuck in the top of her bra.”
Officers then found a Thunder Valley membership card and PayPal debit card not issued in her name. And they found a notebook in the trunk containing names, dates of births, social security numbers—and some names also had associated emails, passwords for those emails, and home addresses.
There were 18 persons in total listed in the notebook.
A search of Perez’s phone also revealed a photograph of a debit card, social security number, and ID issued to the same person whose PayPal card and membership card were found inside the vehicle.
The officers explained that, based on the notebook, the photographs found in her phone, and cards found in her purse, they believed “the defendant possessed these with an attempt to commit fraud against the victims in this case.”
However, upon cross-examination, Assistant Public Defender Vadim Kobrya said the notebook was never tested for fingerprints or DNA. And officers admitted they were not certain that the notebook absolutely belonged to Perez, or if other people had access to the trunk earlier that day or week.
Kobrya also confirmed that none of the people listed inside the notebook were contacted by officers to see if they were actually out any money or were the victims of recent fraud.
Deputy District Attorney Emilee Divinagracia called Officer Gregory Cowart to testify that the names in the notebook matched up with real people.
Officer Cowart, in fact, testified that he was able to identify 17 real people by matching the names in the notebook with dates of birth, social security numbers, and drivers licenses from the DMV registry.
PD Kobrya objected generally to Perez’s holding order and asked for the identity theft felony to be reduced to a misdemeanor.
He proceeded to point out Perez’s lack of a significant felony record and lack of evidence that “the folks listed in the notebook actually suffered any losses or that their info was used to harm them in any way financially or physically.”
DDA Divinagracia disagreed with Kobrya, and explained that with regard to the holding order there is “certainly enough circumstantial evidence as to why she possessed all this information, along with debit cards, membership cards, and social security numbers.
“They were not made up names or random numbers. They came back belonging to real people,” said Divinagracia.
In regard to a felony reduction, Divinagracia explained that Perez has a criminal history dating back to 1995, with all of the charges having to do with theft.
“Her first felony was a theft crime in 2001. She has at least two burglaries—one misdemeanor and one felony. She has two felonies of grand theft. She has also not done well as she has had three violations, with one this year. So, I disagree that her felony record is not substantial, because it is,” Divinagracia argued.
Divinagracia added a final sentiment: “And, I think the fact that all these names were written in a notebook shows a level of sophistication, and then if you look at her record, it shows she likes to commit crimes of theft. So, I don’t think this is deserving of a misdemeanor, this is a felony.”
At this point, Kobrya reminded the court that (officers) testified the vehicle was associated with her, but never that it belonged to her. Therefore, there is no indication that Perez is the owner of the notebook.
Judge Earl interrupted Kobrya and explained, “I think the difficulty with that argument for Ms. Perez to overcome is that the PayPal card that was on the front passenger seat, the photo of the ID of that person, and social security card and debit card were in her phone and also in the notebook that was in the trunk, so that is a difficult argument to overcome.”
Judge Earl ultimately concluded that she was not prepared to reduce the felony to a misdemeanor for two reasons.
The first was that this was a more sophisticated case of identity theft than those typically presented in this court, and the second was that Perez’s prior record includes both theft and drug-related offenses.
“In regards to a holding order, it does appear that the offenses in the complaint have been committed, and there is sufficient cause to believe that Perez is guilty thereof, and I order that Perez be held to answer,” Judge Earl finished.
Not guilty pleas were entered on behalf of Ms. Perez, and a jury trial date was set for May 10.
Natasha Feuerstein is a senior at UC Davis majoring in Political Science and minoring in Global Disease Biology. She is originally from Camden, Delaware.
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