Is it too easy to change your legal name? Arizona lawmaker thinks soPosted: Updated:
An Arizona lawmaker is concerned that some criminals and sex offenders may be changing their legal names to hide from their illegal pasts. Critics argue the bill would put an undue burden on people who want to change their names for legitimate reasons.
State Rep. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) said the current system relies on felons to self-report their past crimes honestly when petitioning a judge for a name change. His bill, SB 1199, would require people seeking a name change to submit fingerprints and undergo a background check, with some exceptions.
Kavanagh said he was not aware of any specific cases of criminals using legal name changes to mask their identities, but argued there could be significant consequences.
“You can set up a bank account. You can open a business. You can get other licenses that don’t require fingerprinting. It’s a whole new life and a whole new opportunity to victimize people,” he told a House committee on Wednesday.
The bill, which was approved by the state Senate Feb. 23 along party lines, has been amended so that people seeking a name change following a divorce do not need to undergo the additional checks. It also exempts people with a restraining order – potential victims of domestic violence fleeing a partner.
The bill now awaits a vote on the full House floor.
“It would prevent people who are trying to deceive us from doing us harm,” said Lisa Green.
Green’s ex-husband is a registered sex offender in another state. She said he is currently on certain social media and dating sites in violation of those website’s policies, and fears a legal name change could allow him to further cover his tracks.
“I know from sad personal experience what these people are capable of, how they operate,” she said.
But activists in the LGBT community have pushed back hard against the bill, arguing that it adds unnecessary costs and delays for people seeking name changes for legitimate reasons, like transgender people.
“It’s a worthless bill and it should be stopped,” said Josef Burwell, vice president of Trans Spectrum of Arizona.
Josef Burwell legally changed his name from Pamela Burwell last year, and said the process was expensive and arduous.
“I had to change my name with 37 institutions,” he said.
He said name changes aren’t an effective way for a criminal to hide his or her identity.
“Even if you do change your name, you still have the same identity with your Social Security number,” he said.
Kavanagh, a former police officer, said he was particularly concerned about criminals using legal name changes to evade law enforcement during traffic stops.
He said when officers stop a suspect, they typically obtain the suspect’s name and date of birth from his or her government-issued driver license. That information is then run through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database to see if the suspect has any outstanding warrants.
An FBI spokesperson contacted late Thursday was unable to immediately comment on how effective a new legal name would be at tricking the NCIC database. The system stores criminal history information based on more than just an individual’s name, “but also on other personal identifiers such as sex, race, date of birth and Social Security number.”
Presumably, separate names linked by a common Social Security number and date of birth would appear under a single search, but the spokesperson could not immediately confirm if that is what happens.
But even if entries are linked by a common Social Security number, it’s possible that some arrest information may not appear on such an NCIC search, said Phoenix Police Sgt. Mercedes Fortune. She explained that at the time of booking, jailers take a suspect’s fingerprints and record his or her name, but may not be able to obtain the suspect’s Social Security number for transmission to the FBI.
[ONLINE: Name change forms on AZCourt.gov]
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