, Salem, MA

January 17, 2013

Fraud charges against student dismissed

State law doesn't mention debit cards


---- — SALEM — When Levon Harewood tried to use a Salem State University “Clipper Card” to purchase milk and a candy bar at a campus store last September, the clerk discovered that the card had been reported as lost.

Campus police said Harewood uttered an expletive and then stormed off with the items, leading them to charge Harewood, 21, with shoplifting and two counts of credit card fraud after the Sept. 26 incident.

But yesterday, those fraud charges were dismissed, after Harewood’s lawyer convinced a judge that the card, which belonged to another student, was actually a debit card, not a credit card, and that the law under which Harewood was charged doesn’t say anything about debit cards.

Heather Ramsey pointed to the definition section of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 266, Section 37B, which specifically defines a credit card as “any instrument or device” that allows the user to obtain something “on credit.”

But the Clipper Card is prepaid, loaded with an amount of money that then enables students to use it in dining halls and to purchase other items on campus.

“There’s a hole in the law,” Ramsey told Judge Robert Brennan, who scrambled for a lawbook and then read the statute himself.

Prosecutors argued that the statute also refers to obtaining items “by other means” and suggested that covers debit cards.

But the judge was not convinced.

“The card in issue is a debit card,” Brennan wrote in his ruling. He said a debit transaction is “fundamentally different” than purchasing something on credit.

Prosecutors indicated that they are reviewing the decision and may appeal.

In the meantime, Harewood, who still attends classes at the school but who has been barred from the dorms while the case is pending, is still facing the shoplifting charge.

Ramsey told the judge that her client denies that allegation, saying he thought he had permission to use the card and that the clerk was just “messing with him” when she told him the card wasn’t working. The expletive, she said, was a joke. They’ll get to make that argument to a jury on Feb. 12 when what’s left of the case goes to trial.

It’s the second time the Danvers lawyer has successfully challenged a charge on the grounds that the law doesn’t specifically cover the item in question. In 2011, Ramsey persuaded the same judge to dismiss a charge of using a forged vehicle document after pointing out that the law said nothing about registration decals, the little, square date sticker that goes on a license plate. Her client in that case had crafted one out of paper, tape and a marker.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.