What's in a name?
A fortune, some inmates say
By Emanuella Grinberg
NEW YORK (Court TV) -- It may not be a strategy that's tried, tested and true, but that hasn't stopped inmates across the nation from claiming copyright to their names and then demanding money from lawyers and judges who dare to utter them.
In a form of legally sanctioned harassment, inmates awaiting trial and already convicted are passing their time behind bars filing multimillion-dollar liens against figures involved in their cases for unauthorized use of their names in legal papers and transcripts.
However ludicrous, such scams can be a huge hassle for members of the legal community. Lawyers and judges have no choice but to contest them, which can be time-consuming and expensive, and often impedes the inmate's trial.
In the most recent example, a Rikers Island inmate being tried for crack-cocaine possession, interrupted his preliminary hearing a number of times to declare that his name was copyrighted and he would be demanding money from parties in the court who spoke it without his permission.
James Walker filed liens on June 20, 2003, against Queens Assistant District Attorney Theresa Tebbet-Koubeck and Justice Joseph Grosso, demanding $500,000 for each reference they made to him while handling his drug case.
In response, earlier this week, the office of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown filed civil papers against the secretary of state and the New York Department of State, which handles lien filings, demanding that Walker's claims first be shown to have merit.
"The result of these bogus filings is that the reputations and credit worthiness of the public officials involved is irreparably harmed," the motion says. "Clearly, these filings were made in an attempt to subvert the administration of justice by intimidating and harassing public officials to prevent them from exercising their official duties."
Lengthy court process
Usually, the lawyers and justices hit with the liens triumph in getting them tossed, but not without going through a lengthy court process during which their credit report is frozen.
Such was the case with convicted tax evader Joseph Komes Jr. of Illinois. In January 2003, he sent a $2 million invoice to McHenry County Judge Ward Arnold in January 2003, alleging the judge violated a purported copyright on Komes' name four times during a November 2002 hearing for tax evasion.
To ensure he would collect on Arnold's $500,000-an-instance violation, Komes placed a lien on Arnold's Union, Illinois, home.
In May 2003, a judge from a neighboring county declared Komes' actions fraudulent and tossed out the lien. He also barred Komes from filing further liens against Arnold and ordered the McHenry County recorder not to accept any such documents from Komes without court approval.
One reason inmates have been successful, at least in getting liens levied, is that filing a lien requires merely a notarized application, not proof of copyright, according to New York City copyright lawyer Susan Buckley.
Also, there is no system of checks and balances between the Department of State, responsible for accepting copyright applications, and the county clerk, who accepts applications for liens. This proves especially fortunate for inmates trying to claim copyright of their name, Buckley said, since a name cannot be copyrighted.
"The copyright body of law is designed to protect creative expression and the way you form your thoughts," Buckley said. "You can't copyright a fact, and an inmate's name is a fact."
As long as the loopholes exist, inmates continue to slip through them. In September 2003, Oklahoma inmate Carl Ervin Batts invoiced the federal prosecutor and two judges who sent him to prison for five years claiming they owed him $13.5 million for copyright infringement.
In response, the federal government filed suit to bar Batts from filing more liens against their personal property and to toss out the ones he already filed. The suit also asks the judge to order the court clerk and its staff to "use their best efforts to refrain from" accepting any documents filed from Batts seeking liens against the two judges and prosecutor.
But just weeks after the prosecutor in the case, U.S. Attorney David Dugas filed a preliminary injunction in February to stop a convicted mail fraud scammer from filing liens against him, he received a phone call from another prosecutor asking for advice in mounting a similar defense against another inmate.
"You don't want to prohibit the filings in such a way that would block those that are legitimate," Dugas said. "It's difficult to filter the frivolous claims from those that are valid."
Meanwhile, the rapidity with which the scam is spreading is evident in its proliferation within one detention center.
Adalberto Orrego is one of a handful of inmates in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, who filed liens last summer while awaiting sentencing for importing heroin.
He demanded millions of dollars from a federal judge, three prosecutors and the prison warden for infringement of the alleged copyright on his name.
Orrego is also being held in contempt of court while a civil suit is pending against him for violating a temporary restraining order the feds had obtained to stop him from filing liens.
Within the same month, three other Metropolitan Detention Center inmates pursued similar tactics against figures involved in their cases.
From the same prison, inmate Luis Rual Rodriguez sent his own lawyer, Edward Jenks, an invoice for $41 million. The convict currently serving time for a drug rap also sent Assistant U.S. Attorney Noah Perlman a $30 million invoice for using his name 60 times in court papers and prosecutor Scott Klugman was hit with a $2 million for four mentions.
While Rodriguez never pursued the matter by filing liens to ensure payment from Jenks, he did file liens against Perlman and Klugman. The Brooklyn district attorney's office is currently investigating the matter to decide what action to take.
"It's an ongoing process," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Katz, who is handling the case. "It didn't come to our attention until recently, and it has to go through the courts like any other case, which can turn into a very long process."
In another instance, Metropolitan Detention Center inmates Felipe Johnson and Jaime Gonzalez targeted their defense lawyer, Harry Batchelder, with a lien for unauthorized use of their names in their respective trials.
Gonzalez also filed liens against the judge presiding over his trial for running a drug ring, forcing Federal Judge Allyne Ross to recuse herself from his sentencing. Another judge gave him life in prison.
Johnson also filed a lien against the presiding judge in his trial for $60 million.
Batchelder confirmed that the liens filed against him were eventually tossed after months of waiting for a court date to hear his suit. "There is some movement from the U.S. attorney's office acting against these suits, but they're just mulling over them now, it will take a long time to devise a defense against this sort of thing," he said.
Although all of these cases are likely to be unsuccessful, the inmates may not care. Slowing the process down, and harassing the court officials, seems to be the point.
"If an inmate can get us to respond to his actions, it's a victory for him," said U.S. Attorney Dugas, who was wary of additional media attention to the issue. "We don't want to give any more inmates any bright ideas."