The American justice system is based on the ideal of “innocent until proven guilty,” but it doesn’t always play out that way. Often, the innocent go to prison, sometimes to serve long sentences. Since 1989, for example, at least 1,555 innocent people in the United States have been exonerated of crimes after previously being convicted, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School.
David Merkatz knows what it’s like to be wrongly charged and face the possibility of prison time.
Merkatz, a locksmith, was arrested in South Florida after he hit upon a business strategy of creating a series of locksmith company names that were similar to names of existing companies. He says his method of siphoning off his competitors’ business “might not have been nice,” but his attorney assured him it was legal.
After all, the service he was offering was not a scam. Customers who called would get a real locksmith to their house who would do the work and charge a fair price, he says.
The worst that could happen, Merkatz figured, was that his competitors might file civil claims against him over trademark infringement. Criminal complaints shouldn’t have been a possibility.
But one of the “victims” had ties to local government. Merkatz says that’s how he and two other locksmiths ended up in jail, charged with a host of crimes ranging from money laundering to petty theft. Eventually, the charges were dropped, but Merkatz says he was damaged in many ways by the ordeal.
“You are really guilty until proven innocent in this country,” says Merkatz, who wrote a book about his experience titled “Wrongly Charged: A Look at the Legal System” (wronglycharged.com), with 10 percent of the profits going into a fund to help others who are wrongly charged.
“Even if you are found not guilty of a crime, your reputation is tarnished.”
Merkatz says his run-in with the legal system taught him a few lessons.
- Seek legal advice. Merkatz says his knowledge of the justice system comes from experience and talking with attorneys, but those who feel their constitutional or legal rights are being violated should seek assistance from a professional. Not only do you need an attorney, but it should be an attorney from your state because laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, he says.
- Understand the importance of plea deals. Prosecutors often offer plea deals to defendants and it’s not surprising when guilty people, especially first-time offenders, accept the offer, Merkatz says. “You can bargain with the state to let you plea to a lesser charge, and if you are a non-violent offender, chances are you’ll be given a pretty good deal,” he says. Sadly, though, even innocent people have to consider plea deals, Merkatz says, because otherwise they place themselves in the hands of a judge or jury and could end up with a stiff prison sentence.
- Always carry a bail bondsman’s card. Merkatz admits that many people “look at me like I’m nuts” when he suggests this, but he believes it’s important. Most law-abiding citizens can’t imagine a scenario when they would need to contact a bail bondsman to help get them out of jail, but it can easily happen. Merkatz, for example, says a friend was once pulled over for a routine traffic stop. The officer ended up pulling out his gun and arresting the man on an outstanding warrant. As it turned out, the warrant was for someone else with the same name and a similar birthday, but law enforcement did not figure that out until Merkatz’s friend spent several hours in custody.
Although Merkatz and the other two locksmiths in his case were not convicted, Merkatz says the law enforcement investigation took a toll in financial resources and in the stress of not knowing whether they would go to prison.
“I believe that until the laws of this country are changed to level the playing field for defendants there will always be innocent people sitting in jail or executed,” Merkatz says. “Others will lose their jobs, their friends and their reputations because of false accusations.”
He says one solution would be to handle criminal cases like civil cases. If someone files a lawsuit against you and loses the case, the court usually will order the person to pay your court costs and legal fees.
“That protects people, to some degree, from frivolous lawsuits,” Merkatz says. “You will not be out the tens of thousands of dollars it takes to defend yourself. If criminal cases were handled this way, I’m betting the state would not be so quick to file charges.”
Published: May 7, 2015 - Volume 14 - Issue 04