Local forgery case could set state precedent

Published 10:27 am Friday, October 30, 2009

The question of what is forgery — and what is admissible in county court to prove it — were the key topics argued at a Thursday hearing in a case that could set state precedent.

At issue is whether using a fraudulent name to acquire a valid ID — as 29-year-old Martha Isela Reynua of Austin is accused of doing — constitutes felony-level aggravated forgery, a charge that has become more common in Austin this past year and is often associated with cases of illegal Hispanic or Latino immigrants allegedly using aliases to gain employment.

Reynua’s attorney, Minneapolis-based Bruce Nestor, claims his client didn’t commit forgery because she didn’t falsely make or alter a document.

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Prosecutor Jeremy Clinefelter, however, argues that by using a fictitious name — Reynua allegedly went by “Laura Romero” to get a state ID card and to work at Hormel — the defendant committed aggravated forgery.

This is one of several key issues in the case, which could be decided a month or so after both attorneys submit briefs to judge Donald Rysavy in mid-December.

Statutory questions

The argument over whether Reynua committed forgery comes down to how state law is interpreted.

That law reads, in part, that someone “with intent to defraud, falsely makes or alters a writing or object … so that it purports to have been made by another or by the maker or alterer under an assumed or fictitious name … is guilty of aggravated forgery.”

Nestor said it is clear that Reynua would have to had made or altered something to be guilty, which he thinks she didn’t do.

He also thinks there is a double-standard at play — if his Hispanic client is charged with a forgery, why shouldn’t a young, white male get tagged with the same offense for using a fake ID to buy liquor?

“The fact that you’re an immigrant shouldn’t make it a felony,” he said.

But Clinefelter said that by using the fictitious name, Reynua is guilty of forgery.

He likens it to someone who uses an alias to create a legitimate bank account and illegally writes checks from the account.

In such a case, Clinefelter said he believes aggravated forgery is an appropriate charge — he even noted that state law was changed to handle schemes like that.

“Our statute specifically states that if you use a fictitious name, then (you can be found guilty of aggravated forgery),” Clinefelter said.

This isn’t the only point of contention — the two sides are also arguing whether evidence against Reynua is admissible.

Because Reynua wasn’t staying at her sisters’ Austin home when it was searched in early June, fraudulent documents in her name were not recovered.

She also wasn’t arrested, so Reynua never gave a statement to police.

Instead, authorities identified her with help from family during the search, and later received her I-9 employment eligibility form and attached documents from Hormel, allegedly under the “Romero” name.

In court Thursday, Nestor argued that by law, I-9 forms and all attached documents are only permissible in federal court, not at the local level.

Clinefelter said that this stipulation may only apply to court cases involving employers and that not permitting the evidence would go against the spirit of the law.

Possible precedent

Nestor said current state law “doesn’t have a clear answer” for aggravated forgery, which is why the Reynua case could be so important.

If his argument is successful, it could lay the foundation for future changes to state statute, or, at the very least, make prosecutors more hesitant to file felony charges in similar cases.

And this is a big deal to Nestor, who said the charge level is key — not only do people with felonies get publicly stigmatized, but deportees can be barred from ever returning legally if they have such an offense on their record.

“A vulnerable population is really being run through the system (and) that causes them great harm,” Nestor said previously. “We have to remember that we’re dealing with people that are part of our community.”