SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake police stopped a car with a revoked registration in December 2016, finding heroin and a .44 revolver inside. They arrested the driver, who later took a plea deal and went to prison.
Pretty routine. Except that the driver claimed to be his brother the whole time, prosecutors say.
It was only after 32-year-old Aaron Fritz arrived at the Utah State Prison two years ago that his real identity was revealed, according to court filings. During intake, a corrections officer noticed the new inmate didn't match a photo in the system of Bela Fritz, the name he'd given. So the prison employee then pressed him on personal details.
Aaron Fritz confessed, the officer called a supervisor and the case made its way to the state's highest court, court documents say. In an opinion this week, the Utah Supreme Court directed a judge to revisit the conviction that remains on his brother's record.
"It is unclear what measures the state undertook to confirm the defendant's identity, but the state apparently followed his lead," the opinion states.
"Honestly, one of the greatest fears of a prosecutor is that of a wrongful conviction," said Tony Graf, a deputy Salt Lake County District attorney who worked on the case for a time. "It seemed like in this case, the right person was convicted under the wrong name."
Paperwork aside, Aaron Fritz emphasized to the Deseret News on Friday that he's the one who served two years in prison before he was released on parole.
When the case was playing out, "I wasn't really in the right mind state at the time. I wasn't on my meds. I was just going with whatever they said," he recalled. He said he is now taking medication for depression and seeing a therapist.
The 32-year-old construction worker acknowledges he made mistakes and regrets them.
"I'm just trying to get back to a normal life, be a normal citizen and a person that does good," he said. Fritz, of Kearns, has not been criminally charged with operating under a false name in court over the course of four months.
After the revelation at the prison, prosecutors found themselves in the curious position of seeking to undo a conviction. They argued Fritz would not have been offered as plum a deal if they had known who he really was, including that he was on probation in another case.
They challenged the conviction with three arguments in a Salt Lake courtroom, but a judge determined she couldn't grant their request. Third District Judge Ann Boyden concluded doing so would require a first-of-its-kind application of legal rules, and that would amount to creating a new law, according to the Supreme Court's written decision. The state appealed.
In an opinion released late Thursday,Justice John Pearce disagreed with Boyden and detailed the real harm a fake name could potentially do.
“A defendant’s misrepresentation of his or her identity is an illicit attempt to game the criminal justice system. It carries with it troubling consequences," the opinion states.
In addition to tarnishing someone else's record, such a sentence may not be tailored to the actual offender's background, criminal history, or mental or physical health, Pearce wrote. It may not fit requirements designed to properly punish and deter crimes, and it could put public safety at risk.
What's more, in the Fritz case, "an innocent person was actually convicted," said John Nielsen, an assistant solicitor general for Utah who argued the state's case. "That could affect his brother's future legal proceedings and other rights he might have."
"It's not unusual for somebody to give a false name," Nielsen added. "It's a little more unusual for them to give a name belonging to somebody else, but it's highly usual for it to last this long, for somebody to successfully deceive police, prosecutors, the courts and everyone else about their real identity."
The 31-year-old Bela Fritz, the brother whose identity Aaron Fritz is accused of taking on, has not waded into the debate, Nielsen added.
Both brothers have a history of drug and theft charges dating back more than a decade, court documents show. Aaron Fritz's record includes a 2012 conviction of child abuse, a third-degree felony.
In its opinion, the Utah Supreme Court directed the lower 3rd District Court to reconsider prosecutors’ arguments.
"We sympathize with a district court that finds itself ruling on a novel issue of law with little guidance," Pearce wrote. However, ruling on questions “of first impression," are part of a judge's job, he continued. Four other justices concurred.
Attorneys for Aaron Fritz had pushed back on the effort to reverse the conviction in his brother's name. They agreed with the judge that a rule allowing courts to revisit convictions applied only to those who have lost their case. Pearce again disagreed, explaining the doctrine could pertain to others, too.
Aaron Fritz on Friday said he believes the case had already been transferred to his name, though court records show they remain under his brother's. One of his lawyers declined to comment; another did not return a message.2 comments on this story
He was originally charged in February 2016 with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, a first degree felony; having a firearm despite being a restricted person, a third degree felony; and possession of drug paraphernalia, a class B misdemeanor, court records show.
In a plea agreement with prosecutors, he admitted to the weapons charge and a reduced count of attempted drug possession, a second-degree felony. The misdemeanor drug count was dismissed in exchange. At sentencing, the judge dropped the remaining drug charge to a third-degree felony, ordering a prison term of up to five years.