Can you steal a dead person\’s identity?

Police chiefs have admitted that a second undercover unit stole the identities of dead children as recently as the late 1990s in a series of operations to infiltrate political activists.

Yes, obviously you can in the colloquial sense. But can you in a legal one?

I can see that you can misuse one. I can see that the State might get mightily pissed off with you representing yourself as someone you\’re not. You might use a fake ID to \”steal\” benefits, which would indeed be theft.

But is the identity of a dead person actually property that can be stolen?


19 thoughts on “Can you steal a dead person\’s identity?”

  1. No. Under English law, the dead can own nothing, and an identity is not real or other property that can be passed on.

    A linked and interesting question is, who owns a body?

  2. “A linked and interesting question is, who owns a body?”

    The next of kin.

    Hence why you can sign up to a donor card if you want, but your NoK gets the final say.

  3. Yes – I’m not sure that “identity theft” is actually theft. Some of the components of it might be fraud but these are unlikely to be the sorts of things that the police were likely to be up to.

    Look at it this way – if the undercover cop defaulted on a £10k loan taken out in the false identity and the letters arrive at the parents house, you’d think that even the dimmest finance company might realise it is their mistake when presented with a death certificate predating the loan application. Then again …

  4. I stand to be corrected on this one, but I have a nagging feeling that some years ago legislation was introduced to stop people doing this, not in the sense of “don’t do this any more, it’s naughty” but actually making it incredibly complicated to get a copy of a birth certificate/passport etc without proving your own identity first, cross-referencing passport requests against death registers and so on

  5. The offense is not the “stealing” of an identity but the false use thereof;

    Possession of False Identity Documents With Improper Intent under the IDENTITY DOCUMENTS ACT 2010.

  6. James,

    Yes, indeed. And the police won’t obtain the documents by claiming to be Mr Dead Child, there will be SPoC at IPS who will take authorised requests from the Met for the issue of documents in the name of Mr Dead Child. False information isn’t supplied and acting as a properly authorised CHIS isn’t improper intent.

    The legal offence, if any, is likely to reduce to a disciplinary breach of the Met’s processes for obtaining such documents.

  7. As to the body, I thought no-one owned a dead body in English law (isn’t there some old legal tag about it “belonging to the earth” or some such?), but that the executors have control of it.

    In the absence of a valid will there won’t be any executors, so it would be a court-appointed administrator instead, which is where the next of kin is likely to come in.

  8. Surreptitious Evil,

    I guess it is true that the police can obtain documentation legally for use in the UK but what about traveling internationally? Would it breach any treaties with other countries on the basis that one is trying to circumnavigate a sovereign states border controls?

  9. Would it breach any treaties with other countries on the basis that one is trying to circumnavigate a sovereign states border controls?

    I’ve had a quick look and can’t find any appropriate treaty statements. AFAIG (google), passport recognition is governed by ICAO rules – specifically Chapter 3 of Annex 9 to the Chicago Convention. I’m no expert in this, but the only applicable reference I can find is para 3.46. Which only states that Contracting Parties should seize fraudulent documents and hand them back to the State (or local Diplomatic Mission) of purported issue.

    I suspect that issue of a genuine document by the State in an assumed name, with the State fully aware of the impersonation is assumed (like many intelligence operations) to be a thing that goes on but won’t get talked about.

    Unlike the fraudulent issue by a State of another State’s travel documentation (e.g. Mossad assassins using European and Australian passports in Dubai.) Which was formally complained about by a number of countries.

  10. @ Flatcap Army #5

    I remember that too (largely because they referenced Day of the Jackal) but I assume that the rozzers find it easier because they have certain cut throughs.

    namely, I assume that they didn’t do something illegal, just something that people find distasteful.

    I find the whole idea of undercover cops not being allowed to shag people amusing though. For a start, it would make spotting undercover cops extremely easy unless they were trying to infiltrate some kind of militant abstinence group…

  11. As Richard says, legally a dead body is not a thing that can be owned, so no one owns it and no one can own it. Hence there is no offence when the autopsy quacks think your liver is an interesting item and decide to hang on to it for later study.

  12. According to a uni chair in Law of my acquaintance:

    No, it isn’t theft because identity is not property within the meaning of the the Theft Act 1968. Identity theft will typically involve fraud, forgery and so on, and perhaps even theft, but is not in itself theft in the sense of being an offence under s 1 of the 1968 Act.

    BTW grave robbers are not ordinarily guilty of either theft or robbery because a body in a grave is not property either (or if it is property it does not belong to anyone).
    hope that helps.

  13. Theft: for it to be theft in the legal sense it requires the taking of property with the intention permanently to deprive the owner, of it.

    Whether or not identity is property (owner dead or alive) is perhaps moot, since assuming another’s identity does not deprive them of their identity.

    Any crime is the use of a false identity, assumed or made up, for illegal purposes.

    Dead body: nobody owns a dead body, but anyone or any institution which has a duty to dispose of it has the right to posses it. This could be next of kin, a hospital, coroner, or the local authority or the State.

  14. The issues underlying the story are:

    1. police using this system when there is a better system they could use that wouldn’t involve dead children’s identities (according to a former police officer);

    2. absence of proper authorisation to use the identities;

    3. dedicating such resources to infiltrate peaceful protest groups.

    I’m not sure there would be as much fuss if the undercover police in question had discovered serious criminal activity and helped bring the perpetrators to justice.

  15. The deceased that you comment on are peoples loved one’s or doe’s that matter anymore.Until you comment on who owns a deceased person is it not the parents that brought them into the world or the siblings they left behind.

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