Questions linger over Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh’s 1988 alleged retail theft

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As Orange County Property Appraiser, Rick Singh has amassed what could be considered a notable resume.

For example, he was the first ever state-certified appraiser elected to the county position, having brought what the appraiser’s website calls nearly 20 years of “hands-on experience” to the post.

What does not appear anywhere on Singh’s bio is something a little less impressive: a disputed arrest in 1988 at the Zayre Department Store at 145 State Road 436 in Fern Park.

Singh, who was 25 at the time, had been briefly detained for allegedly trying to return a computer he didn’t purchase.

Although Singh insists the decades-old episode was nothing more than a mix-up, some believe he was technically under arrest for the crime of retail theft.

And while the unpleasant incident, misunderstanding or otherwise, did not prevent Singh from having a career in the Orange County Property Appraiser’s office, the situation gets complicated when Singh, born Paramand Singh in August 1962, sought to change his first name legally in 2010.

That request is what could prove troublesome for Rick Singh.

On the official name change request, dated Nov. 18, 2010, Singh checked that he had “never been arrested for or charged with, [pleaded] guilty or nolo contendere to, or been found to have committed a criminal offense, regardless of adjudication.”

Whether that statement is strictly true — or, at worst, possible perjury — is the source of debate.

According to a form dated June 22, 1988 — titled Arrest/Notice to Appear — and signed by Seminole County Sheriff Deputy N. Fowler, Zayre security officer Chuck Brott said that Singh entered the department store at about 1 p.m. and began acting suspiciously. This concern led Brott to start observing the young man through a two-way mirror.

Brott saw Singh remove a Commodore 64 C computer from the store shelf and bring it to the service desk. The narrative describes Singh next appearing to fill out, sign and return a store credit receipt.

It was then Brott intervened, identifying himself as a security officer, accusing Singh of seeking to return the item by claiming the computer was his, even though he had no receipt.

Brott escorted Singh to the security office, giving him the legal Miranda warnings.

Singh chose to waive his constitutional rights, explaining he was merely going to ask a question about the computer. The store model — similar to a computer Singh said he already owned — was so to “make it easier on the employee.”

After he had brought the computer to the service desk, Singh said the employee, listed as a Mr. Williams, automatically began filling out the slip of paper, handing it to him without question.

When interviewed by Brott, Williams said Singh asked to return the merchandise and was told he couldn’t receive cash for the computer, but only store credit. The report concludes with Brott telling Singh that Zayre’s had intended to prosecute. The charge listed on the report is “retail theft.”

Twenty-eight years later, Singh continues to dispute he was arrested.

“This is not true,” Singh told FloridaPolitics.com reporter Scott Powers in a July 18 interview. “I was not arrested. I was not taken into custody. There is no judgment on this.”

The situation was nothing more than a misinterpretation, he added.

“I took a computer back to the store,” he added. “They were actually working on my computer.”

When shown a copy of the report from 1988, with the header “Arrest/Notice to Appear,” Singh replied he “had no idea.” Singh then argued it was he who suggested bringing in the Sheriff’s Office to resolve the complaint.

“This was not an arrest. An arrest is when you are seized and taken into custody,” Singh said. “I feel I was profiled.”

As for why the report just recently came to light, Singh said it was because of the political “silly season.” Singh is currently running for re-election, facing Republican Edward DeAguilera and write-in candidate Christopher Casler.

A few details seem to support Singh’s argument. Is a “Notice to Appear” different from an arrest? Did Singh get an arrest or a notice to appear? Did he know if there is a difference?

Also, much of the report was left blank — date, location and time of arrest, and booking. The deputy’s narrative description of what happened does not include language indicating Singh was arrested, though it did explicitly say he was read Miranda rights — a constitutional requirement for those under arrest.

Todd Brown, Chief Investigator for the State Attorney’s Office for the 18th Judicial Circuit (Seminole and Brevard counties), says even a “notice to appear” is legally considered an arrest.

Notices to appear are given instead of formal arrests, Brown told FloridaPolitics.com earlier this month. They do not need to include bookings or any other unpleasantries.

Often, Brown said, they are given for misdemeanor offenses in which there is no reason to believe a suspect would not appear. He added that it would not be surprising if most people who receive a notice to appear — as in Singh’s case — mistakenly believe they have NOT been arrested.

That these notices are technically arrests, Brown suggested, is something that only law enforcement and officers of the court are aware; it not necessarily apparent to a layperson.

Brown later said he could find no records in the 18th Judicial Circuit relating to the incident of July 22, 1988. One possible explanation is that the incident occurred before the court began digitizing records, making the records so old that if there were any other proceedings by the State Attorney.

They probably would be in the paper archives, Brown said.

While all this could just amount to a 28-year-old incident of alleged shoplifting, one in which Singh contends he did nothing wrong — and, for the record, no charges were ever filed — available information seems to suggest another explanation. The circumstances could also be interpreted — at least by some — as Singh being under “arrest,” even though it was a technicality.

Nevertheless, Singh continues to maintain vigorously he was not arrested, and official (pre-digital) records also appear to bear this out.

In Singh’s case, however, the question of whether he was arrested is not academic, particularly in light of his signed affidavit for a name change.

It could be much more severe.

Florida Statutes define perjury as “whoever makes a false statement, which he or she does not believe to be true, under oath in an official proceeding in regard to any material matter.” Under Florida law, it is a third-degree felony.

If Singh had no reason to believe he had been arrested, he likely had not committed perjury by stating that he had not been arrested; the statute requires him to make no statement “which he does not believe to be true.”

Singh certainly may not have been arrested. On the other hand, ask anyone who has been detained (or otherwise held) by the authorities for any number of youthful indiscretions — shoplifting, rowdiness, underage drinking and the like. They may not have been under arrest, per se, but it certainly felt as if they were.

The argument here is whether it is reasonable that Singh thought he was not “under arrest” in these circumstances.

In the end, this could all be just a giant misunderstanding. But one thing is sure: Singh’s brief run-in with the law — along with his name change — raises more questions than it answers.
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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.