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Stolen identity leaves innocent man labeled a felon

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For years a man was labeled as a convicted felon, even though he'd never committed the crime, all because another man used his name when he got arrested.

Then because of an apparent clerical error it was never corrected, and that's turned into a life-changing experience.

Because of this error, Gerald Starbuck couldn't vote, he couldn't work on any military bases, which is where he'd worked for much of his career, and though he thought the issue was fixed years ago after getting a letter from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, he later found out the Duval County Clerk of Courts still had him listed as a felon.

"I was absolutely shocked," Starbuck said. "First thing that came to my mind was, you know, this has got to be some kind of mistake. I've never even been arrested for anything like this."

Starbuck's story started in 2010 when he moved back to Florida from Alabama. Starbuck wondered why it was so hard for him to find a job, even with 14 years of experience.

"No callbacks, no takers, I had no idea why. I went to register to vote that following fall in 2010 and received letters from the supervisor of elections office that I was not eligible to vote because I was a convicted felon," he said. 

Starbuck learned that in August 2006, a man he used to work with got arrested in Atlantic Beach and charged with possession of cocaine. That man, Brett Merrigan, gave police Starbuck's name.

In the arrest report the officer notes the man had given a false name, but the report still bears Starbuck's name.

Even after Merrigan accepted a plea deal, signing his real name on court documents, Duval County court records still listed Starbuck as a convicted felon.

"Every person in the courtroom would've seen this, including the judge, and nobody caught it. They sent it to him somehow under my name. He did the time, but I was convicted," Starbuck said.

Starbuck hired a lawyer and in 2011, got a letter from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office confirming the mistake.

But up until last week, background checks still showed him as a convicted felon, something he said has turned his life upside down.

"Now I am a career food-stamp recipient with an 'Obama phone' living at my father's house. Ten years ago if you would have told me that this would happen, I would've said you were insane," Starbuck said.

Starbuck said the Duval County Clerk of Courts told him the issue has now been corrected and for him, it's a relief.

The Duval County Clerk of Courts did release a statement Monday explaining exactly what happened that led to Starbuck being labeled a felon, saying:

"The Clerk's Office filed the case under the name filed by JSO. The Clerk of Court is not at liberty to modify the name on a case without a court order or amended documents from the filing agencies. In 2011, the Clerk of Court received a document from JSO supporting Mr. Starbuck's claim of fraud, and the name on the case should have been changed. Since this took place in 2011, the current Clerk Administration can only speculate that it was a scrivener's error that resulted in the delay."

Starbuck said now it's just about moving on with his life. He said he's not able to take any legal action because the statute of limitations has passed, but he really just wants people to be vigilant.

"My biggest hope is that this cannot happen to anyone else; it shouldn't even be possible," Starbuck said. "This could easily destroy someone's life overnight."

Anyone with questions about protecting their identity can head to the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Information website or head to Consumer Reports to find out how they can protect themselves.