Wrongly Charged by David Merkatz by David Merkatz - Read Online

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Wrongly Charged - David Merkatz

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It seems that every time we turn on the television, there’s a legal show airing. We’re fascinated with them; perhaps because whether we watch The Good Wife, reruns of Matlock, or one of the many reality crime shows, it feels as though we are gaining valuable information about our legal system. Unfortunately, most Americans do not truly understand their rights or how these rights are often threatened by the very people who are supposed to protect them.

I, on the other hand, have witnessed the workings of our judicial system up close and personal. My knowledge was gained not by watching Law & Order, but after being unjustly accused of some rather serious crimes. It was through this experience I came to realize that, despite what we’re led to believe, we are often treated as though guilty until proven innocent; not the other way around; the way our fair and just legal system was intended.

Throughout this book, I will take you through the facts of my case: namely, that I was trying to run my locksmith business in an increasingly competitive climate; that I had in mind a particular business strategy and that I consulted three separate attorneys to determine whether what I was proposing was legal, and I was assured by all three that, at most, it would be considered trademark infringement—a civil matter. Despite these assurances, however, I would be charged under Florida’s money laundering and conspiracy to defraud statutes—felonies that carry serious jail time.

This book was inspired not only by my experiences but also by those who have suffered financial ruin—not to mention mental anguish and the loss of their freedom—after being wrongfully charged. It is my sincere desire to help the average citizen navigate the legal system with issues, including:

The arrest process

Navigating the bail system (including how to get out of jail before First Appearance)

The trial process

Plea agreements (and why so many innocent people accept them)

Florida’s sentencing guidelines

Appealing a conviction or civil judgment

It is my sincerest wish that this book will help others who are wrongfully charged to be able to assert their rights and, hopefully, protect themselves from serious financial distress or ruin, avoiding the necessity to have to rebuild their lives like I am trying to do now.

Please note that I am not an attorney and that this book should not be construed as offering legal advice. It should be noted that unless otherwise stated, all legal references concern federal and Florida state law. If you feel your constitutional or legal rights are being violated, you should contact an attorney in your state.


My Story

My thirty-five-year career as a locksmith began in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn—the same neighborhood where I grew up. Like many New York City neighborhoods, Bensonhurst in the 1960s was full of middle-class, close-knit families that lived by a code of determination and hard work. People were not necessarily educated in a traditional sense; instead, they lived by their wits and street smarts. The result was an entrepreneurial spirit that could be seen in every mom-and-pop business, from the local laundromat to my own mother’s bakery. The prevailing attitude was that with a lot of hard work and a little luck, there wasn’t anything you couldn’t achieve. You just had to pick something, give it your all, and never, ever give up.

This work ethic was ingrained in me from early childhood, and by the time I was seventeen, I had found my something. I got a job with a locksmith supplier and began learning the trade. I quickly realized that being a locksmith could be a very lucrative business, and sustainable, regardless of the economy. After all, who didn’t need to change their locks at one time or another? People needed new locks after buying a new home or business, or after being burglarized. People locked themselves out of their cars and apartments—often at odd hours—and they needed someone to let them in.

The next step was to get my license, which was required by New York City for all locksmiths. The license could be obtained in one of two ways: either by passing an extremely difficult test or getting two licensed locksmiths to sign a letter of qualification. Well, it wasn’t so easy to find locksmiths to do this, since they would, in effect, be helping their own competition. Luckily for me, I had already become friends with several local locksmiths who had come into our shop to purchase supplies. Two of them were kind enough to sign the letter for me.

Obtaining the license was only one part of the process, however. I still had to learn the trade, and the best way to do this was through an apprenticeship. My boss took me on all of his jobs, teaching me how to change the different kinds of locks and how to deal with customers. There was no pay, but I didn’t care. I was gaining valuable experience, plus he bought my lunch and even threw me a twenty every now and then. Twenty bucks was a lot of money at that time, especially for a teenager, and I can still remember how it felt when he placed the bill in my hand. It was like I had won the jackpot!

After a year or so, I was ready to put my new skills to the test, and start collecting a paycheck. At age nineteen, I opened my first locksmith shop in downtown Brooklyn. Getting customers was a piece of cake—all I had to do was place a large display ad in the Yellow Pages, and the phone started ringing off the hook. People called me day and night with everything from lock-outs to changing locks to lost car keys.

Everything was going great, but by age 22, I was ready for a change of scenery. I was young, single and had never lived anywhere but Brooklyn. My father, who had moved to South Florida after my parents’ separation, asked me to come down there and live with him. Since the one thing I didn’t like about New York was the ice and snow, I took him up on it.

When I headed south, I fully expected to have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops in order to get a new locksmith license; so I was shocked to learn that, unlike New York, the state of Florida did not require licensure; in fact, there were no industry regulations whatsoever. All I would need to open a shop was a county tax receipt.

I went down to the office with my ID, only to find that even that wasn’t necessary. A very nice lady handed me a form and told me to fill in the name and address of my business along with some incidental personal information. That, in addition to a sixty-dollar fee, authorized me to run a locksmith business. They didn’t even perform a criminal background check.

I walked out of there in complete shock. I could not believe the state would allow anyone with sixty bucks to have unfettered access to people’s homes and businesses. I didn’t dwell too much on it, though; I knew I would run a reputable business, so I knew it didn’t have much to do with me.

As I had done in New York, I placed my ads in the local phone book. The bigger the ad, the busier you became, so I bought the largest ad I could afford and waited for the phone to ring. I didn’t have to wait long; in fact, for the next three years, I had more business than I could handle and even hired three guys to work for me.

That all changed with the arrival of Home Depot and the other do-it-yourself megastores. They were able to sell the locks to the consumer at distributor cost—which is the same price locksmiths paid for them. Now, when I quoted someone one hundred dollars to install a deadbolt, they’d say, Why so much? I could buy a lock at Home Depot for ten bucks!

This was a major problem for everyone in the business, and it was compounded by the fact that no license was needed. Anyone with a screwdriver could call themselves a locksmith, buy a single ten-dollar lock, and undercut our prices. There was no commitment of having to stock up on inventory or anything else. Plumbers and electricians did not face this problem, as they were required by Florida law to have a license to buy certain products and a permit to install them. I had no idea why my trade was different, all I knew was that my business had dropped by fifty percent since Home Depot came to town.

The situation was frustrating, but I hadn’t gotten this far without learning how to roll with the punches. I did what most locksmiths were doing: I closed my shop and went mobile. That helped for a year or so, but then a new problem arose. During the first few years of the Internet age, most people still depended on the Yellow Pages to find whatever they needed, whether it was a locksmith, a plumber or a dentist. By the year 2000, however, more than seventy-five percent of advertising was being done online. At this point, in order to keep the phones ringing, locksmiths and every other businessperson had to advertise online in addition to the phone book. We also had to pay for the creation and maintenance of websites as well as the means to drive traffic to those websites.

One of the most efficient ways to do this was—and still is—through pay-per-click ads. The business owner places their ad on search engines such as Google or Bing and then pays every time a potential consumer clicks on that ad, which brings them to their website. Initially, it was a dollar per click to place such an ad under locksmith headings, but over time, the cost literally skyrocketed. Today, I’d have to pay $40-$50 per click to be in the top three listings. This kind of advertising was an enormous financial burden, especially compared to the days of Yellow Pages. Whereas a business pays a flat fee to be featured in the phone book for a certain period of time, Internet ads are subject to change depending on the number of clicks and the number of competitors bidding on per-click rates for better placements of their ads. There is no guarantee that people who click on your ad will become customers; even worse, there are many businesses and individuals committing click fraud—clicking on ads for the sole purpose of diving up costs for the advertiser. This further ate away at my profits, and I found myself working harder and harder and earning less and less.

By 2006, advertising had become cost prohibitive; it was just too expensive to make the phone ring. Added to this was an influx of immigrants, mostly from the Middle East, who had discovered they could move to Florida, open a mobile locksmith business, and place ads on the Internet. They would advertise cheap online prices, only to upsell the job once they were at the customer’s home or business. Traditional locksmiths like me could no longer compete.

Again, I had to take a step back, reassess, and figure out my next move. Under the circumstances, the best thing I could come up with was, If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So I did away with my salaried employees and my vehicles; then I hired those immigrants, made them use their own vans and tools, and split the proceeds with them.

Despite my efforts, by 2008, the Internet was so inundated with locksmiths that I was struggling to turn a decent profit. My employees would collect 50%, and I was using 35% of my profits just for advertising.

Now truly at a loss, I finally called a meeting with my subcontractors and told them I could not continue to keep the business afloat. I expected them to be upset or even angry about my decision, but instead they told me that they had an idea. It was very simple, they said, and it just may be the solution to my problem.

There were still some large traditional locksmith companies in the area. We would register fictitious names that were similar to those companies’, then advertise on the Internet using those names.

That’s genius! I first thought when they suggested this, but I soon became concerned. Is