A Case Of Mistaken Identity

Three days before labor day, a ""notice of warrant for Arrest Issued'' appeared in my mailbox. It advised me that I was wanted for contempt of court as a result of an unanswered traffic summons in a town more than 30 miles away, a place I haven't driven through in five years.

Through a computer error, the court believed I was the Michael W. Klein arrested on June 12 at 8:05 p.m., for allegedly consuming alcohol while driving. Because ""I'' failed to appear in court, my summons had been ""forwarded for action'' to my local police department. The notice advised: ""To avoid the embarrassment and inconvenience of your pending arrest, it is suggested that you report to the police department for the purpose of posting bail. You will then be notified of the date you will be required to appear in court.''

Pending arrest? Bail? Appear in court? But I'm Michael W. Klein, an upstanding attorney with a spotless driving record. My local police department obviously didn't know I'm such a pillar of society, so I reported there immediately, thinking I could quickly clear my name. All the police had to do was to run my driver's license number through their computer, verify that I'm no criminal and they would release me, right?

Wrong. If you are pulled over on the Information Superhighway, you are guilty until proven innocent. In my case, I was presumed guilty of offenses I did not commit. According to the warrants, I needed $750 bail or I'd be spending time behind bars.

I read the warrants upside down while the desk officer compared them to my driver's license. Only the names matched. The warrants said my eyes are blue (they're green), that I was born in July 1964 (it was March 1965) and that I drive a car with Pennsylvania plates (mine are New Jersey plates). The officer didn't care. ""You'll have to clear this up where the summonses were issued,'' he said.

Because of the Labor Day holiday, I'd have to wait at least four days -- four days of fearing I'd be pulled over by police, whose computer would tell them I was a wanted man. It was Big Brother reduced to the size of a power notebook, and it was his word against mine. Angrily, I asked, ""Can't you do anything now? I'm obviously not the guy you're looking for.''

Lesson No. 1 for criminal suspects: never sound angry. ""I have enough to throw you in jail right now,'' the officer replied. ""Do you want me to try to help you or not?'' Lesson No. 2: accept all the help you can get. ""I'd appreciate anything you can do, officer,'' I said meekly.

To solve the Case of Mistaken Identity, the officer did not check my background through a computer; he grilled me instead. ""Have you ever been arrested for drug use? Ever been in a car with Pennsylvania plates? Do you know anyone using your name?'' Finally, one of the department's sergeants appeared and ran my name through the New Jersey motor-vehicle records computer. Finding my record unsullied, he suggested calling the arresting officer (in the other town) to play a telephone version of ""To Tell the Truth.''

The desk officer explained over the phone: ""We have a Michael W. Klein here, but he says he's the wrong man. Are you familiar with this subject?'' The arresting officer asked about identifying characteristics. ""Uh, no,'' replied the desk officer. ""No tattoo on his left arm. Hair? No -- not to the middle of his back. Receding.'' Oh, the indignity of it all.

As he hung up, the desk officer exclaimed, ""Wow! They really want this guy. He was pulled over after going 150 miles per hour with his buddy and he took a swing at the arresting officer. Boy, that guy's really in trouble.''

Taking my side at last, the desk officer apologized. "I'm sorry about this, but we get lots of people who say, "I'm not the person you're looking for'.'' To help me prove my innocence, he took a Polaroid snapshot of me, pinned it to a wall and wrote underneath, ""This is the wrong Michael W. Klein.''

But I was still Public Enemy No. 1 at the scene of the crime, where I returned soon after Labor Day to visit the municipal-court clerk. She retrieved the summonses for Michael W. Klein from her files and confidently said, ""This has your name and address on it, so it must be for you.'' When I noted that the original address had been crossed out and my address substituted, she said, ""Oh. That looks like Alice's handwriting.'' It was the clue that cracked the case. The post office had returned Michael W. Klein's original warrant notice as unforwardable and, assuming he had moved to New Jersey, Alice found my name in the computer and sent me the notice. No cross-check of social-security numbers, birth dates or eye color.

This wasn't the first time that careless use of a database had turned my name into computer-routed roadkill. In college, financial-aid administrators threatened to cut off my scholarship because they thought I had not turned in all my forms. But it was Michael A. Klein, in the class behind me, who was the tardy filer.

The potential for mistakes like these grows larger -- and more serious -- as more aspects of our lives are stored on discs and shared. It goes beyond driving records and financial information. I've read that Citicorp is building a database of 40 million families collected from 12,000 retail stores.

I'm not suggesting we slow the development of cyberspace. I ask only that computer operators check their facts, especially when the consequences of a mistake can be so dire. For example, sending notices to the wrong address has helped swell the ranks of fugitives in New Jersey, who now outnumber defendants on trial and can commit more crimes while evading justice.

I don't know if the other Michael W. Klein has been caught, but the court clerk eventually found his arrest records, including mug shot and fingerprints. She typed me a letter to carry in my car, explaining my innocence. Looking at the mug shot, a police lieutenant joked, ""You look just like him. You just cut your hair.'' At least he didn't say ""receding.''