The printer that federal investigators took from a University of Maryland, College Park student indicted for making fake IDs wasn’t also used for printing out term papers.
What Theodore S. Michaels had in his dorm room was an older version of a professional, high-performance card printer more commonly used to create security passes for hospitals and office buildings. The printers, made by Zebra Technologies, can retail for thousands of dollars and create more than 100 IDs an hour with unique bar codes like the ones found on the back of Maryland licenses.
While fake IDs on college campuses are common, lawyers and security experts said it was the quality of Michaels’ product that drew the attention of the federal government.
“Any driver’s license that good that can pass detection is a dangerous tool,” said Vernon Herron, a senior policy analyst at the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security.
Neither Herron nor any lawyers interviewed believed that Michaels was producing IDs for anything or anyone that posed a threat to national security.
“He’s a rather unsophisticated young man who did not realize the gravity of his transgressions,” said Steven D. Kupferberg, Michaels’ lawyer.
Lawyers also said it is rare for the federal government to go after a college student. But the value of one of Michaels’ licenses in the wrong hands prompted federal investigators to take action.
“The ultimate fear of prosecutors is the person making the IDs doesn’t really have control over where they go,” said Andrew C. White, a former federal prosecutor. “You never think about the national security implications of creating false documents that can do more than allow a person to drink in a bar.”
Michaels, a 20-year-old junior, pleaded not guilty last week to all charges against him in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. A trial has been scheduled for the end of June. Kupferberg said in an interview last week he has been in discussions with prosecutors about resolving the case before trial.
“He intends to take full responsibility for his actions,” said Kupferberg, of the eponymous law firm in Rockville.
Prosecutors have charged Michaels with conspiracy to commit fraud, production and transfer of false identification documents and possession of a document-making implement. He would face a maximum of 245 years in prison if convicted on all 16 counts in the indictment, which was filed this month.
Kupferberg said he is still not sure why prosecutors targeted his client and had never before seen the conspiracy charge used in federal court.
Richard P. Arnold, a Greenbelt criminal defense lawyer who represents individuals accused of underage drinking, said federal investigators might have gone after Michaels because he was producing fake IDs that were knockoffs of other states’ licenses. All seven IDs Michaels is accused of creating in the indictment were made to look like Pennsylvania, Virginia or Ohio licenses.
“The U.S. attorney would want high-end cases,” Arnold said. “Most of the [fake] IDs are not a big concern because they can be readily identified.”
A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein declined to comment about Michaels’ case specifically or about cases involving fake IDs generally. A spokesman for the University of Maryland Police Department referred questions to Rosenstein’s office. The Washington, D.C., field office of the U.S. Secret Service, which was also involved in the investigation, declined to comment because the case is open.
White said federal investigators would not get involved if Michaels made only seven IDs. He was also surprised no state charges were brought against Michaels first that could have been used to flesh out federal counts.
“There’s got to be a lot more evidence he was producing a large quantity of high-quality IDs distributed widely,” said White, of Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White LLC in Baltimore.
And therein lies the public safety threat, according to Herron, a former director of homeland security for Prince George’s County.
“After 9/11, fake IDs are one component public safety officials are really trying to crack down on,” he said. “Anyone who had money could obtain [one of Michaels’] IDs. There’s no telling where the IDs are now.”
According to the indictment, Michaels sold prospective clients on the advanced features of his licenses, including data-encoded magnetic strips that could be read by “swipe” card readers. Michaels received between $100 and $170 per license and paid an unnamed co-conspirator for his help, the indictment states. Michaels also offered free driver’s licenses to customers who referred five other people to him, the indictment states.
Michaels spread word of his business through friends and former classmates at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. His contacts were on campus and “attending other universities and colleges in Maryland and elsewhere,” according to the indictment.
Michaels is a straight-A student at Maryland pursuing three majors — accounting, economics and finance, according to court documents. His high school academic achievements landed him in the university’s elite Gemstone Honor Program, according to court documents. Michaels has also received several scholarships, including a dean’s scholarship to the Robert H. Smith School of Business, according to court documents.
Kupferberg dismissed suggestions Michaels’ printer demonstrated a more in-depth scheme. Michaels was 18 at the time he made the licenses detailed in the indictment and was doing “what goes on at the college level all the time,” Kupferberg said.
“He might have been sophisticated in the process, but he was not sophisticated in his thought process,” he said.