Archive for November, 2013

NICS Turns 15

Fifteen years ago, on November 30, 1998, the FBI flipped the switch on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, a provision of the 1993 Brady Act that requires background checks on individuals purchasing firearms or receiving them through some other means.

The goal at the time was to disqualify any transfers of firearms to ineligible individuals while at the same time ensuring timely transactions for eligible individuals. Today, as the FBI-run background check system marks its anniversary, successes are seen daily and in real-time on both fronts.

Since its inception, the NICS has processed more than 177 million background checks requested by gun sellers, or federal firearms licensees (FFLs). On its busiest days, the system processes more than 10,000 automated checks an hour across 94 million records in FBI criminal databases, including the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the Interstate Identification Index (III), and the NICS index of 11 million individuals who fall into certain categories that prohibit them from receiving firearms (see sidebar). Nine out of 10 NICS determinations are instantaneous, so FFLs know immediately whether to proceed with transactions or deny them. To date, NICS queries of criminal databases have resulted in 1,065,090 denials, with 88,479 in 2012 alone.

“The statistics for denials can stand on their own with regards to how well the system works in keeping firearms out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them,” said Steve Fischer, a spokesman for NICS, which is run by the Bureau’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division in West Virginia.

The most common reasons for denials are prior criminal convictions, domestic violence, drug history, and fugitive status.

In 37 states, NICS background checks are conducted by the FBI when purchases are initiated at one of the country’s 46,895 licensed gun sellers. The sellers contact the NICS online through an electronic system or through one of three call centers, which run the names against the databases. Thirteen states perform their own background checks by utilizing the NICS.

While most NICS checks return immediate dispositions of “proceed” or “deny,” about eight percent are delayed, usually because of incomplete criminal history records. By law, the NICS section must make a determination within three days or the transaction may be allowed to proceed. It’s during that period that NICS staff research missing information to update the records and create a clearer picture of applicants. Last year alone, the NICS section filled in the blanks on more than 34,000 incomplete criminal history records and then shared the information with state agencies.

Records are not kept on individuals whose transactions are approved to proceed. By law, they are purged within 24 hours. NICS has an appeal process in place for individuals whose transactions are denied.

In addition to firearms, the Safe Explosive Act of 2003 requires background checks as part of the licensing process for individuals shipping or receiving explosives. The requests are submitted to NICS by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and the ATF makes the final determinations. To date, NICS has processed more than 700,000 explosives background checks; in 2012, NICS processed 148,856 checks and denied 3,077.

NICS employs nearly 500 people and operates 17 hours a day (8 a.m. to 1 a.m.), 364 days a year (closed on Christmas). The system can—and does—routinely process more than 80,000 requests a day. Last December, NICS processed 2.7 million background checks—177,170 in a single day on December 21. According to a 2012 NICS report, the highest volume of background check requests usually occurs on the day after Thanksgiving.

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Shoppers eager to take advantage of early Thanksgiving deals brawled late Thursday as retailers across the country prepared for more crowds on what was expected to be a bumper Black Friday.

After buying a big screen TV, a Las Vegas shopper was shot at around 9:45 p.m. local time (12:45 a.m. ET) late Thursday as he tried to take his purchase home, Lt. David Gordon of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department told NBC News.

“As the victim was walking through his complex he was approached by a suspect who fired warning shots which caused the victim to release the television,” he said.

As the thief tried to load it into a vehicle the victim approached him to try and get it back, Gordon added.

“The suspect fired two more shots and the victim was struck in the leg,” he said. “He was not seriously injured.”

Early Friday shoppers started arriving at a Chicago-area Kohl’s store just hours after a police officer shot the driver of a car that was dragging another officer responding to a call of alleged shoplifting which came in at around 10 p.m. local time (11 p.m. ET).

An officer chased a fleeing suspect to his car when “the car started to move as the officer was partially inside the car,” Romeoville Police Chief Mark Turvey told NBC station WBCD. “The officer was dragged quite some distance.” A backup officer then shot the driver of the car.

Both the driver and the dragged officer were taken to a hospital with minor injuries. Three people were arrested, police said.

At least three people got into a fight in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Rialto, Calif., because shoppers were cutting in line, Sgt. Nicholas Borchard told NBC Southern California. Two were taken into custody after the fight at around 7 p.m. local time (10 p.m. ET), he added. A police officer suffered a minor unknown injury.

A man in Claypool Hill, West Virginia, was slashed to the bone with a knife after threatening another man with a gun in an argument over a Wal-Mart parking spot, Tazewell County Sheriff Brian Hieatt told NBC station WVVA. Both faced charges after the incident that happened at 6:30 p.m. the station reported.

Another shopper was charged with aggravated assault on a police officer after getting into an argument with a New Jersey Wal-Mart store manager about a television set, police told NBC New York. Officers arrived at the scene at 6:39 p.m. and once they had pacified the customer they also charged the shopper with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, Garfield police told the station.

Stores have braced themselves for the Black Friday rush despite a Consumer Reports poll this week that found 56 percent of Americans had no plans to shop at all this weekend.

Because Thanksgiving fell on Nov. 28, the latest possible date, there are six fewer shopping days this holiday season than last. The most common reason — named by 70 percent of respondents — was a desire to avoid the crowds.

A Gallup poll this year found that 53 percent of Americans are very or somewhat likely to do their shopping online, the highest share since Gallup started asking the question in 1998.

However Wal-Mart President and CEO Bill Simon told TODAY that the company had a “terrific night” Thursday and expected a busy Black Friday too.

He also defended the decision to open on Thanksgiving.

“We’ve been opening since the eighties,” he said. “We’re in the service industry.

We open when our customers want to shop.”

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Server charged in large ID theft scam

ORANGE BEACH, Ala. (WALA) – Records show a former server who worked at Orange Beach restaurants was arrested and charged with 59 counts of identity theft, one count fraudulent use of a credit card, and one count third degree theft of property on Monday, November 25.

Orange Beach Police said Stephanie Marie Brown, 30, was manipulating tips as a server and taking money from unsuspecting customers between April and May.

Police said customers would not notice they were being over-billed until later receiving their credit card statements.

“Victims had contacted the restaurant and had complained to the restaurant about some charges on their credit card receipts were not authorized by them,” explained Greg Duck, Assistant Chief of Orange Beach Police.

Officials told FOX10 News she was a server at Hurricane Grill and Wings and also worked at Shipp’s Harbour Grill.

Managers at Hurricane Grill and Wings declined to talk on camera about Brown, but they did tell FOX10 she was a good employee; she just made some wrong decisions.

We also spoke with the owner of Shipp’s Harbour Grill who also declined to comment on camera, but told FOX10 that Brown stole some $500 from their cash register, and she had not padded any tips at their restaurant. They pressed the third degree theft of property charge against her.

Brown’s listed home address is an apartment in Fredricksburg, VA., but police said she was picked up in Pensacola, where she had been living.

She is being held on $5,000 bond for each identity theft charge and remains in the Baldwin County Jail, totaling to $301,000. Police said her case will go to a grand jury.

It is unclear how much money she stole during the scam.

In the meantime, Orange Beach police warn folks to stay aware of your credit.

“We just want people to understand that it can happen anywhere,” said Duck. “People really need to watch their bank accounts, and their credit card accounts on a daily basis. That helps law enforcement.”

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In one week alone at the Walmart Supercenter in Stapleton, two men walked off with a paintball gun, another tried to steal a futon and a pair of pillows, and a fourth told a Denver police officer he had no receipt for the 97 items in his shopping cart because “Aw… Um. … Because I didn’t pay for any of this.”

Walmart officials told police this year that the store at 7800 E. Smith Road loses $1.5 million each year to theft, putting it among the top 5 percent of the chain’s locations nationwide for shoplifting. The store is far and away the city’s leading destination for shoplifters, with 283 offenses reported in the past year — 179 more than the second-highest location, a Rite Aid on the 16th Street Mall.

Police officers, frustrated by 841 calls for service at the Stapleton Walmart in the past year, even tried parking empty squad cars in front of the doors as decoys until those, too, became crime victims.

“At the end of the day we pick up the car, and it’s been spit on and kicked, and you can only cry wolf so often,” said Cmdr. Les Perry of the District 5 police station, which inherited coverage of the Walmart when the police district boundary lines shifted in July. Since then, he has met regularly with store managers to strategize against shoplifters. He urges his officers to do foot patrols there when they can.

“It’s too soon to measure what results I’m yielding,” Perry said, adding that the start of the holiday season could bring an uptick. “I’m still seeing my numbers climbing.”

The company’s recent abandonment of zero-tolerance shoplifting policies, and the removal of door greeters who would look out for thieves, could be partly to blame, police said. Walmart no longer prosecutes first-time shoplifters unless they take more than $25 of merchandise and are between 18 and 65. And the chain allows its “asset-protection associates,” who are trained to spot and stop thefts, to hold a shoplifter for police for only an hour. Perry said he is trying to improve response times to the store to deal with that.

Still, other metro-area Superstores aren’t seeing shoplifting on the same scale. The store at 5650 S. Chambers Road in Aurora has clocked 134 reports of shoplifting this year, and Thornton police have handled 108 at the 9901 Grant St. location, which the company told police is the highest-volume Walmart in the state.

Customer volume and location can affect shoplifting rates, Thornton Officer Matt Barnes said.

But the Stapleton Home Depot, a minute away from the Walmart at 3870 N. Quebec St., has reported just 21 shoplifting cases — one-tenth the number at Walmart — in the same yearlong period.

Dianna Gee, a company spokeswoman in Bentonville, Ark., wouldn’t comment on problems or specific security measures at the Smith Road location. Employees there were instructed not to talk to The Denver Post.

Gee said the company’s asset-protection teams work closely with law enforcement to identify trends and develop store-specific safety plans. Those can include adding security cameras, locking high-end merchandise behind glass or protecting it with “spider wrap” devices that sound alarms when tampered.

At the Smith Road store, police have said, cosmetics and small-ticket items have been favored by thieves.

“We’re committed to working with law enforcement in every community,” Gee said.

Even with the cooperation of management, reducing crime at a large retailer has proved a challenge, according to police, who this year offered suggestions that included reconfiguring parts of the store’s layout and having a representative check receipts at the exit.

On a recent afternoon, there were no police “ghost cars” stationed at the doors, but there was a police cruiser with two officers inside. They had just cited a shoplifter.

Asset-protection associates, some in plain clothes, roam Walmart stores, eyeing shoplifters or watching them on surveillance cameras. One employee on Nov. 10 watched a woman hide $79.14 of items in her bag then pass through several registers with no attempt to pay. Police reports show she was allowed to walk outside — and into the waiting handcuffs of a Denver officer who arrested her.

The Smith Road store saw some improvements after police counseled managers on dealing with what Perry called “resurrection cases,” in which thieves try to return items they never purchased in the first place to earn store credit.

The shoplifter who tried to take the futon and pillows on Nov. 8 produced an old receipt for the items and tried to “return” them to get money for bus fare, according to police reports. The next day, a suspect attempted a “no-receipt return” of $47.92 at the customer service counter then left without paying for other items in a cart.

An asset-protection associate stopped the thief and recovered the goods, but police reports show no arrest was made.

“They’d give us six to eight cases at a time,” Perry said. Police urged the store to require identification for such returns, among other suggestions. The store has told him it has saved $70,000 in such fraudulent returns and that “shrinkage” — or loss because of theft — has fallen 14 percent to 17 percent.

Crime has long been a challenge for the nation’s largest retailer, which in 2006 posted theft losses of $3 billion. Neighbors opposed the company’s plans to open a store at East Ninth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard for multiple reasons, including the perception that it would drive up crime in the area.

The company eventually pulled out.

But an equal challenge is striking a balance between protecting a store from criminals and keeping it inviting for law-abiding shoppers, said Joseph LaRocca, former vice president for loss prevention at the National Retail Federation who consults with businesses and police on retail security.

“When they have to lock a product up, when they have to put it in a case, retailers don’t want to take those measures. But they are forced to because of crimes that take place,” he said. “It’s a balance of environmental factors that exist in the store.”

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For the past five years, Ephonia Green has publicized her donations of wedding gowns to military brides, describing in interviews how she was moved to repay their service with her own goodwill by giving away 275 ensembles from her Upper Marlboro shop.

Federal court records suggest how she may have been able to afford that: Since 2005, while working as a $56,000-a-year administrative assistant, Green alleged The District-based nonprofit organization represents accredited medical schools and major teaching hospitals and administers the admissions test known as the MCAT.

In a case thought to be one of the largest embezzlements from an area nonprofit group, Green is scheduled to appear Monday at a plea hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington.

The charges against Green, 44, are contained in an eight-page “criminal information,” which can be filed in a felony case only with a defendant’s cooperation and signals that a plea agreement is near.

Of the alleged loss, nearly $1.4 million was paid via 74 checks made out to Green’s bridal business, known as Couture Miss Bridal & Formal, court files show.

Green’s attorney, William Brennan, declined to comment.

The court document contends that Green enriched herself by registering company trade names and opening bank accounts in business names that closely resembled those of legitimate vendors to the association.

At the association, Green had enough access to key financial systems that she was able to create fake invoices in the names of legitimate groups that she then approved for payment, the court files contend. And when the checks were ready, she had them returned to her, not sent to the vendors, prosecutors charge.

Under that system, a spelling change of just four letters allegedly netted $3.7 million for Green when she purportedly created nearly 200 false invoices in the name of the well-known Brookings Institution policy center but deposited the checks into accounts she opened for her own “Brookings Institute.”ly stole $5.1 million from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Last month, a Washington Post investigation revealed more than 1,000 “significant diversions” of assets at nonprofit organizations discovered during a Post analysis of federal disclosure records filed by groups across the country. Many of the diversions identified by The Post were described as acts of theft and fraud carried out by insiders, contractors and investment advisers.

Federal prosecutors filed charges swiftly in the alleged association theft, a break from some past embezzlements from nonprofit groups. Youth Service America, a national charity also based in the District, alerted authorities in 2009 that a former employee had stolen $2 million. But charges were not filed in that case until almost four years later, after The Post questioned prosecutors about the incident as part of its broad examination of theft from charities. The former employee pleaded guilty.

The alleged years-long plot by Green unraveled in July when a bank withheld payment on a $113,000 check that Green was depositing — into an account she had set up two days earlier — and notified the medical colleges association, court records indicate.

The amount matched a quarterly payment due to one of the association’s legitimate vendors — but the invoice number did not align with numbers the outside group used on its bills, said Frank Trinity, the association’s chief legal officer.

Darrell G. Kirch, president of the association, said the group is experiencing “betrayal and profound disappointment” and that “the people who are closest to it have felt devastated.”

Green started at the association in 1998 and worked in support positions where she chiefly handled the details of arranging large meetings for the group, Trinity said.

After the tip-off from the bank, the association grew suspicious of more payments, Trinity said, before firing Green in July, calling federal authorities, alerting its board and hiring an outside attorney and forensic accountants.

The internal investigation, Trinity said, suggested that Green began her alleged scheme modestly by submitting small, bogus bills to cover the registration fees of staff members supposedly headed to conferences.

The alleged embezzlement ballooned starting in 2005, the criminal court files charge, until Green netted an amount that would be close to 90 times her salary.

The criminal filing does not explain where all of the money went. The filing contends that some was used to cover an auto loan, some went to church donations and some paid for personal items.

Other money helped pay expenses of the bridal shop that Green owned, court files state. Couture Miss brought Green attention as a “fairy godmother” to military brides, as some news accounts described her.

On Saturday, the shop was open and busy. There were dresses in the display window and customers flipped through selections on tightly packed clothing carousels.

Trinity said the association was unaware of Green’s television appearances touting her giveaways and learned of her business only after “doing some Googling” following the bank call about a questionable check.

“I think they put a high priority on this case,” Trinity said of federal prosecutors.

In a separate civil case, the association is asking a federal court to prevent Green and her husband from disposing of property including what the association said is their $1.1 million home in Upper Marlboro.

The association has a $3 million insurance claim pending to try to recover some of its money, Trinity said.

The group has tightened its accounting, auditing and vendor registrations, said Kirch, while acknowledging that “nonprofits have lacked some of the rigor that is enforced in for-profit organizations on monitoring finances.”

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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) -If you’re in the market for a car, don’t just trust a good coat of paint and shiny wheels, do your research. That car title which gives it a clean bill of health? It could be a work of fiction – cleared of any problems by crooks. Virginia isn’t immune to the problem, but there are ways to protect yourself.

Robert White says he was the victim of title washing. “My truck that was worth $25,000, I couldn’t sell it for $19,000,” he tells us. His car was a Lemon Buyback from Georgia, but that information was wiped clean from the Virginia title. He sued the dealer and settled out of court.

His attorney John Gayle says, with a clean title, crooks can hide problems with cars and make big bucks selling the damaged vehicles. “I think it is a big problem, but most consumers don’t know it is a result of title washing. What happens is that they just know they have a car that isn’t working right,” he says.

Gayle wants to see Virginia DMV create tougher guidelines when it comes to branded or blemished titles from other states. “If one of our sister states has branded a car a lemon, it is a fact that the public should know about and it may or may not be on CarFax or AutoCheck,” he explains.

We couldn’t get anyone on camera but DMV does admit sometimes these washed titles can slip through the cracks. Spokesperson, Sunni Brown released this statement: “DMV successfully processes more than 2.4 million titles each year. Out of those, only a fraction, less than one percent, are branded, and all branded titles are processed out of a central work unit at DMV headquarters in Richmond to ensure the titles are branded correctly. DMV has measures in place to ensure titles are issued accurately and branded appropriately including participating in the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) and processing all branded titles out of a work unit at DMV headquarters in Richmond.”

“Anybody who is serious about buying a car without problems, never should buy that car unless they have taken it to a body shop and a mechanic to see if it has any problems that they can tell,” Gayle says.

Chris Basso, with CARFAX showed us several reports, all evidence of title washing in Virginia but he says it’s a nationwide problem. “Unfortunately, with cases of title washing, we’ve seen people die from it. Where ever there is money to be made, criminals are going to skirt the system. It happens because title documents can be altered, cars are moved from state to state where regulations differ,” Basso explains.

He offers three tips that he says will better protect consumes: Get a CARFAX, test the drive the car and take it to a trusted mechanic. “Our database never forgets, that branded title information will show up on the CARFAX report forever,” he says.

If you think you’ve been a victim, you should contact your insurance company or report it to The National Insurance Crime Bureau.

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Jackson County’s former court administrator pleaded guilty Thursday to embezzling tens of thousands of dollars in court funds for her own use while serving as the court’s top nonjudicial official.

Teresa L. York, 58, waived indictment and pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of mail fraud. That charge involved a $41,000 check mailed in December 2011 to pay the court’s monthly credit card bill. A portion of that payment was for items that York had purchased for her own personal use.

But federal prosecutors said that over a three-year period starting in January 2009, York embezzled nearly $140,000.

“This is an extremely offensive violation of the public trust,” said Tammy Dickinson, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

York’s crimes were made even more “reprehensible” because they occurred during a time of serious budget constraints and court employee layoffs, Dickinson said.

Jackson County court officials said in a written statement Thursday that an internal investigation first discovered “financial irregularities,” and that court staff spent “many hours” providing the FBI with evidence in the case.

“It is a sad day when a government official who was responsible for overseeing public funds commits a crime and violates the public’s trust; nevertheless, today justice has been done,” Jackson County Presiding Judge Marco A. Roldan said in the statement. “Ms. York will now be held accountable for her actions.”

In their breakdown of the thefts, prosecutors say $77,778 involved using court credit cards for personal items, including gift cards, gasoline, clothing and meals. York agreed in her plea deal to pay back that amount.

In addition, prosecutors say York embezzled more than $60,000 through a contract awarded to someone with whom she had a personal relationship. That work never was done, prosecutors say.

As part of Thursday’s plea agreement, York’s attorney will be free to argue at the sentencing that she actually took less. The loss amount will have a bearing on the sentence she could receive.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Dickinson said prosecutors would seek a “significant” prison term.

York was allowed Thursday to remain free until her sentencing hearing, which will be set later. As a condition of her personal recognizance bond, she was prohibited from gambling, entering any gambling establishments or traveling outside the immediate Kansas City area.

Dickinson announced the plea at a news conference where the FBI also announced a new phone hotline and email address to report suspected public corruption.

Public corruption is a crime “that happens in the shadows” and can happen anywhere, said Michael Kaste, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Kansas City.

“Everyone is a victim of public corruption,” Kaste said.

The number is 1-855-KCPCTIP. The email address is Callers do not have to provide their names.

“If someone has information about potential wrongdoing by a public official or law enforcement officer, I encourage you to contact this newly established number or email,” Kaste said.

The York investigation began in the spring of 2012, when Jackson County officials discovered what they said at the time were “concerns regarding the expenditure of court funds.”

York, who was earning an annual salary of more than $109,000 at the time, was placed on administrative leave in June 2012. She resigned the next month.

After an internal investigation, Jackson County court officials announced in August 2012 that they had “confirmed the initial concerns which led to the investigation.”

The court’s top judge at the time said in a written statement: “The court depended on Teresa York for many years to manage court functions and funds professionally and ethically, and we have been taken aback in the past few weeks to find that our trust was misplaced.”

York, who has a law degree and had worked at the courthouse since 1984, was named court administrator in 2003. As administrator, she was responsible for overseeing several hundred court employees.

She also was responsible for managing the court’s nonjudicial functions, including human resources, records systems and information and technology.

York was the court administrator in 2007 when a court purchasing clerk was charged with stealing more than $200,000 worth of computers and electronic equipment.

At that time, York said it was the worst violation of trust she had seen in her courthouse experience.

In the allegations outlined against York, federal prosecutors said York used court credit cards to purchase $46,000 in computers and equipment never used by the court system. They also detailed the purchase of more than $35,000 in gift cards. About $6,000 worth of the cards were given to court employees as part of a bonus program. The rest, York kept for herself, according to the allegations.

Other personal purchases included $2,200 for gasoline, $9,500 for purchases on Amazon, $8,300 for meals, $6,400 for items such as clothing and makeup, and $487 in postage stamps.

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KANSAS CITY, MO—Tammy Dickinson, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced that the former treasurer of both the Wellington Napoleon Fire Protection District and Special Road District pleaded guilty in federal court today to a fraud scheme in which he embezzled more than $1.5 million from the two districts.

Leland Ray Kolkmeyer, 58, of Wellington, Missouri, waived his right to a grand jury and pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Gary A. Fenner to a federal information that charges him with two counts of mail fraud.

Kolkmeyer was appointed as treasurer of the road district in 1996. Kolkmeyer was first elected treasurer of the fire district in 1997. He resigned from both positions on February 25, 2013. The offices of both the fire district and the road district are located in Wellington.

Road District Fraud Scheme

Kolkmeyer admitted that he stole approximately $900,000 from the road district from August 1998 to February 12, 2013. Kolkmeyer made checks payable from the road district’s bank account to himself and others for his own benefit without the knowledge, authorization or consent of the road district. The government alleges that Kolkmeyer fraudulently transferred $939,485 from the road district’s bank account to his own bank account or to pay bills on his behalf.

Kolkmeyer, in his position as treasurer of the road district, made false statements and material omissions to the Special Road District Board concerning the checks that were made payable to himself and to others on his behalf.

Fire District Fraud Scheme

Kolkmeyer also admitted that he stole more than $500,000 from the fire district from August 1998 to February 17, 2013. The government alleges that Kolkmeyer fraudulently transferred $590,674 from the fire district bank accounts to his own bank account or to pay bills on his behalf.

Kolkmeyer, in his position as treasurer of the fire district, made false statements and material omissions to the Fire Protection District Board concerning the checks that were made payable to himself and to others on his behalf.

The federal information requires Kolkmeyer to forfeit to the government $1,530,159, which represents the total amount he embezzled from the two districts.

Under federal statutes, Kolkmeyer is subject to a sentence of up to 40 years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $500,000 and an order of restitution. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the completion of a presentence investigation by the United States Probation Office.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul S. Becker. It was investigated by the FBI.

This news release, as well as additional information about the office of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, is available online at

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Police have used cameras that read the license plates on passing cars to locate missing people in California, murderers in Georgia and hit-and-run drivers in Missouri.

The book-sized license plate readers (LPRs) are mounted on police cars, road signs or traffic lights. The images they capture are translated into computer-readable text and compiled into a list of plate numbers, which can run into the millions. Then police compare the numbers against the license plates of stolen cars, drivers wanted on bench warrants or people involved in missing person cases.

Privacy advocates don’t object to police using LPRs to catch criminals. But they are concerned about how long police keep the numbers if the plates don’t register an initial hit. In many places there are no limits, so police departments keep the pictures—tagged with the date, time, and location of the car—indefinitely.

The backlash against LPRs began in earnest this year, as three more states limited law enforcement use of the systems and in some cases banned private companies from using the systems, for example, to track down cars for repossession. So far, five states limit how the cameras are used, and the American Civil Liberties Union anticipates that at least six other states will debate limits in the upcoming legislative session.

In New Hampshire, police and private companies (with the exception of the tolling company EZ Pass) are forbidden from using license plate readers. Utah requires police to delete license plate data nine months after collection. In Vermont, the limit is 18 months and in Maine it is three weeks. Arkansas police have to throw out the plate numbers after 150 days and parking facilities are the only private companies allowed to use the technology.

“It’s been surprising to find out how license plate readers are being used and how long the data is being kept,” said Michigan state Rep. Sam Singh, a Democrat, who is sponsoring legislation to limit police in his state from keeping license plate numbers for longer than 48 hours. Police are using the cameras in a handful of Michigan cities, including Detroit and East Lansing.

Singh’s legislation would also make the license plate data exempt from public records requests so that, for example, divorce attorneys couldn’t request license plate reader data to confirm where a spouse was at a particular time. The bill, which is still in committee, also would limit how private companies can use license plate readers to track down cars for repossession.

“We just fundamentally believe that Americans don’t need to be watched unless there’s probable cause of wrongdoing,” said Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for the Michigan ACLU, which supports Singh’s bill. “We don’t need a ‘just in case’ database. That just turns democracy and our sense of due process on its head.”

NSA fallout

The debate over license plate readers and other law-enforcement technologies is a local expression of a national wariness about government spying in the wake of revelations about the National Security Agency’s far-reaching data collection on ordinary citizens across the world.

“People are saying, ‘I can’t control the NSA, but I can rein in what local law enforcement agencies are collecting,’” said Allie Bohm, an advocacy and policy strategist at the ACLU. Last July, the ACLU released a report warning about the lack of policies for license plate reader programs. The group also has promoted model legislation to limit how long police can keep license plate data.

For proponents of the technology, the timing of the NSA leaks couldn’t have been worse. “I would hate to see that because of bad timing, a great technology is banned or didn’t rise to the level it could have,” said Todd Hodnett, the founder and chairman of Digital Recognition Network, a license plate reader manufacturer which sells the cameras to private companies, including towing firms, banks and insurance companies. An LPR system, which typically includes four cameras, costs between $15,000 and $18,000.

Lumping license plate readers in with the NSA surveillance system creates a false equivalency, according to Hodnett. “The NSA revelations have created an environment that has people on edge, but it’s unfortunate and quite scary that someone could compare listening to a phone call to photographing a publicly visible license plate,” he said.

Hodnett also argued the focus on data limits is misplaced, because matching a license plate to a person’s DMV records or driver’s license record is a two-step process governed by the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act passed by Congress in 1994. When law enforcement officers want to make a query of DMV records using a license plate number, they have to show a “permissible purpose,” which includes public safety, motor vehicle theft, court proceedings or notifying owners of towed or impounded vehicles.

Until a license plate number is matched to DMV data, it’s as anonymous to officers as it is to a person standing on a street corner. That two-step process is what keeps the technology from infringing on privacy, said Robert Stevenson, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police and the retired police chief of Livonia, Mich.

“There’s an additional step that has to be taken to find out who the drivers are,” said Stevenson. “People’s pictures and names don’t just pop up when they drive past license plate readers.”

The U.S. Supreme Court and multiple federal courts have affirmed there is no expectation of privacy for a publicly visible license plate. Hodnett is building a case to argue that prohibiting license plate readers from taking photographs of publicly visible license plates is a violation of the First Amendment.

Tracking the Marathon bombers

In the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers, police used license plate reader data to establish where the Tsarnaev brothers had traveled and where they might be headed, based on places they’d already been. Police used license plate readers to track Dzokhar Tsarnaev to Watertown, Mass., where police found him hiding in a boat in a resident’s backyard.

Even though LPR data was used in that investigation, Watertown’s state representative is pursuing legislation to limit license plate readers. Under Democratic Rep. Jonathan Hecht’s legislation, police would be required to delete license plates collected after 48 hours, but they could hang on to data longer if it was specifically part of a criminal investigation, like the search for Tsarnaev.

“Public safety is very important and we want to use new this technology for safety,” said Hecht. “But as has been true throughout our history, public safety has to be balanced against other important privacy values. In wake of the revelations about the NSA, people are concerned that we’re letting technology get away from us.”

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

TOPEKA, KS—A former bank employee has pleaded guilty to embezzling from a bank in Grant County, Kansas, and to helping stage a robbery to cover up the theft, U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said today.

Amber Gutierrez, 32, Ulysses, Kansas, pleaded guilty to one count of theft from a bank. In her plea, she admitted that she and other former bank employees embezzled from the bank and staged a robbery.

From 2008 to July 24, 2010, while Gutierrez was head teller, she and two co-defendants embezzled approximately $84,200 from Western State Bank in Ulysses, Kan. On July 24, 2010, Gutierrez aided and abetted a staged bank robbery. Subsequent to the staged bank robbery, Gutierrez and co-defendants embezzled another $24,450 from the bank.

Gutierrez is set for sentencing February 4.

Co-defendants are

Ashley Cravens, who is set for a change of plea hearing November 22
Hattie Wiginton, who is set for jury trial December 17
Linda Wise, who is set for jury trial December 17

Grissom commended the FBI, the KBI, the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, the Ulysses Police Department and Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Smith for their work on the case.

In all cases, defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty. The indictments merely contain allegations of criminal conduct.

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