By RYAN J. FOLEY
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Three people from Wisconsin or Illinois who are charged with operating a car insurance fraud ring can be prosecuted in Iowa, even though they never set foot in the state, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Police say the trio staged fake car accidents in Chicago and then filed bogus claims with multiple insurance companies. They were charged in Iowa after an investigation by Davenport, Iowa-based employees of Sentry Insurance uncovered one alleged scheme that involved an estimated $50,000 that insurers paid for repeated claims covering the same damage.
The defendants — Demetrius Rimmer, 44 of Milwaukee, and Chicago-area residents Rona Murphy, 47 and Melonicka Thomas, 56 — were arrested in their home states in 2013 and extradited to face the charges in Iowa.
Their attorneys asked the judge to dismiss the charges, which included ongoing criminal conduct, theft, conspiracy, fraudulent submission and fraudulent practices. They argued that Iowa didn’t have jurisdiction since the 2012 accident at issue was in Illinois and the alleged victim, Sentry Insurance, is headquartered in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. They argued that none of the suspects had been to Iowa, that they had no idea the Sentry employees who interviewed them about claims were in Davenport, and that Illinois authorities declined to prosecute the case.
District Judge Mary Howes dismissed the case in 2013, ruling that the defendants hadn’t “sought out the state of Iowa to allegedly perpetrate this crime” and that no harm occurred in Iowa.
In a 7-0 ruling, the high court disagreed Friday and reinstated four of five charges against the defendants, allowing the case to proceed.
“The state can show that these crimes occurred in part in Iowa based on the defendants’ phone calls with the insurer’s Davenport employee, deceiving him into authorizing payment of false insurance claims,” Justice Thomas Waterman wrote.
The Sentry employee authorized payments of $11,000 based on claims that their vehicles were involved in a three-way accident in Chicago in which Thomas allegedly suffered whiplash. But the claims were reviewed for fraud by another Davenport employee of Sentry, who uncovered the same claims had been submitted to other insurers and numerous inconsistencies in their stories. He turned the case over to Davenport police, which filed a criminal complaint.
Waterman said the defendants’ ignorance that they were talking to Iowa-based insurance representatives doesn’t get them out of prosecution in Iowa. He said the alleged fraud was conduct “that the defendants knew or should have known was illegal in any state.”
“We conclude that persons engaged in multistate insurance fraud assume the risk of prosecution wherever those they deceive are located. A contrary holding would impede the state’s ability to prosecute and deter multistate insurance fraud schemes perpetrated on persons in Iowa,” he wrote.
Scott County Attorney Michael Walton praised the ruling, saying it confirms “the crimes did occur here.”
Defense attorneys didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment.
The court dismissed the fraudulent practices count, saying there was no evidence that the three submitted false certificates in Iowa, an element of the charge.