May 8, 2008

Keeping Notaries Public Honest

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

In my senate office, my staff and I have heard from dozens of people, primarily recent immigrants, who have stories about being deceived and manipulated by notaries public who claim to have more credentials than they do. 

They’ve been lied to by these notaries, who claim to be lawyers and who give them misleading legal information.  These new immigrants have been exploited for their trust in publicly licensed officials.  I think that we all agree that our state should never condone that sort of behavior that takes advantage of people, and that we should punish those who abuse the public trust.

To be sure that we don’t just stand by and let honest, hardworking men and women be taken advantage of by people acting in an official capacity, we approved the issue in the committee I chair, Judiciary, Corrections, and Housing, through AB 468, which now has been passed by the Senate and is on its way to be signed by the Governor.  We partnered with Representative Pedro Colon (D-Milwaukee) in sponsoring the proposal.  This bill makes it a crime for notaries to pretend to be lawyers, and ensures that people around the state—especially those new to our culture and our legal system—aren’t preyed on by people trying to make a dishonest buck. 

How does someone become a notary public?  The rules say that any United States resident 18 years of age or older who has at least the equivalent of an eighth grade education and doesn't have an unacceptable arrest or conviction record is eligible to apply for a Wisconsin notary public commission with the secretary of state.  You don’t need to be a Wisconsin resident and you don’t need to be a United States citizen.  Attorneys do not automatically become notaries, and notaries public who are not also attorneys may not engage in the practice of law.  That means that they may not prepare legal papers such as wills, contracts, deeds, or powers of attorney.  A notary acts as an impartial witness to an official signature or documents and can legally charge fees only up to $10.