I was in the front yard, dragging our big, recently emptied trash cans around back, when I noticed a stranger walking down the street toward me. He wore casual clothes, with nothing to indicate his business.
“Are you Scott?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered, wondering how he knew my name.
“Scott Allen?” he added.
“Yes,” I said again, my curiosity turning to apprehension.
The man then flashed a deputy marshall’s badge in my face. “Sit down!” he ordered.
I plopped down abruptly on our brick steps. Now I was really worried. My mind was racing. I could see myself being handcuffed and led away to a jail cell where red tape would keep me locked up with all sorts of scary men for who knew how long.
“I’m not the Scott Allen you’re looking for!” I told him.
“That’s what they all say,” he replied.
But I knew I wasn’t. The guy they wanted was a scraggly haired high school dropout I’d worked with in a fast food restaurant when I was 16. He knew we shared the same birthday, and while I was hitting the books at school, he was hitting gas stations and stealing cars. When he was arrested and had no I.D. on him, he decided to use my name.
A mix-up in fingerprint files attached his prints to my name and driver’s license. He used my identity whenever he was arrested, which was often. I realized something was wrong when warrants for my arrest began arriving in the mail. To convince the police I was innocent, I had to be fingerprinted again to show my prints didn’t match his. The police then gave me a card I called my “get out of jail free” card. It stated I was not the fugitive wanted for numerous outstanding warrants, and gave a phone number to call for verification.
They told me to carry the card with me at all times, but I didn’t dream I’d have to have it on me when I was at home taking out the trash.
Looking the deputy in the eye and trying to keep my voice steady, I said, “There’s a guy going around committing crimes using my name. I have a card from the police that tells all about it.”
After what seemed like an eternity, the deputy said, “All right, let’s see it.”
He then stayed right on my heels as I went to my room, where I fished the card from my wallet. He kept one eye on me as he read, then dialed the number on the card.
“Looks like you check out,” he said as he handed the card back to me. “Sorry to scare you.”
Just then my mom walked in. She was surprised to see the stranger, and worried to see my shaken appearance.
The deputy quickly explained. He said that once a positive identification of the suspect is made, an officer is under no obligation to listen to explanations or arguments. He can just say, “You’re under arrest,” handcuff the suspect, read him his rights, then haul him off to jail.
“But,” he said to my mom, “your son didn’t look like a car thief, so I did something I rarely do—I gave him the benefit of the doubt and listened.”
I learned a powerful lesson that day about the importance of appearance. I was grateful I had a “missionary style” haircut and could look the deputy in the eye knowing I had nothing to hide. He saw who I truly was in my countenance. People do sometimes judge one another by appearance, and it’s important that the outside reflect what’s on the inside.