While some college students consider fake IDs a rite of passage, the Maryland U.S. attorney underscored their illegality Thursday, announcing federal charges against a scholarship winner accused of making and selling phony driver's licenses from his College Park dorm for a few months in 2009.
Theodore Stephen Michaels — a straight-A, triple major at the University of Maryland who goes by "Teddy" — could face decades in prison if he's convicted of the 16 counts returned against him.
His attorney, Steven D. Kupferberg, said that Michaels, arrested Wednesday, will likely plead not guilty during his arraignment, which hasn't been scheduled. He said the charges seemed excessive.
"I'm frankly surprised [by the indictment]," Kupferberg said. "I don't see how this particular case is any more or less significant than what you find in College Park every day or on any college campus, for that matter."
The nine-page indictment claims that Michaels, now 20, made phony Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania licenses from October to November 2009, selling the identification documents for under $200 each and offering freebies to those who brought him at least five referrals. Most of his customers came through connections from his Montgomery County high school days, the indictment says.
As selling points, Michaels allegedly highlighted his ability to mimic individual state holograms and the machine-readable magnetic strips found on most licenses today — two features that were added to identification documents in the mid-1990s to thwart increasingly skilled counterfeiters.
The indictment asks Michaels to forfeit any illegal proceeds — estimated at $12,500 — along with the alleged document-making equipment: "to wit, [an] Eltron P500CM printer… and a HP Pavilion ZE111f laptop computer."
"This was a fairly sophisticated operation," said Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman for Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, who could not be reached Thursday.
She pointed out that federal prosecutors frequently pursue criminal charges against people who produce false documents, though others noted that such cases typically involve bigger crimes than underage drinking.
"I never saw this type of case unless it was somehow connected to terrorists or illegal immigrants," said Steven H. Levin, a former assistant U.S. attorney under Rosenstein who's now in private practice in Baltimore.
Levin appeared to view the indictment as akin to killing a mosquito with a cannon.
"This U.S. attorney has shown tremendous judgment over the years, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that there's something more here," he said. "But if there's not, basically a college kid's future is ruined because he does things we expect college kids to do."
Michaels, who's scheduled to take final exams this week, did not return a message left Thursday at his home in Potomac.
Kupferberg described Michaels as an unsophisticated, straight-A student throughout both high school and college who, as a university junior, has already earned enough credits to graduate.
He's a member of a biofuels group dedicated to solving the energy crisis, according to online records; is a triple major (accounting, finance and economics) according to a university spokesperson; and he won a scholarship this school year from the Ernst & Young Education Excellence Fund.
"This kid is extraordinary," said Kupferberg, who was hired by Michaels' parents. "His background is exemplary and virtually unblemished."
Michaels' judicial record includes two 2009 convictions for moving violations (failure to make a required stop and failure to produce driver's license on demand) and a pending case in which he's charged with driving 81 mph in a 55-mph zone.
No criminal charges are listed in Maryland online court records. But Michaels could now find himself in the same courtroom where the federal government brings cases involving crimes such as public corruption, narcotics trafficking and violence.
"I can remember when under-aged college kids might walk up to a bouncer and hand over a fake ID, and the biggest fear was that the bouncer would take his ID away and he'd go home early," said Levin, the former federal prosecutor. "And now, he now he might go to prison … and have a felony record for the rest of his life."