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“John Doe” (for males) and “Jane Doe” (for females) are multiple-use names that are used when the true name of a person is unknown or is being intentionally concealed. In the context of law enforcement in the United States, such names are often used to refer to a corpse whose identity is unknown or unconfirmed. Secondly, such names are also often used to refer to a hypothetical “everyman” in other contexts, in a manner similar to “John Q. Public” or “Joe Public”. There are many variants to the above names, including “John Roe”, “Richard Roe”, “Jane Roe” and “Baby Doe”, “Janie Doe” or “Johnny Doe” (for children).
In other English-speaking countries, unique placeholder names, numbers or codenames have become more often used in the context of police investigations. This has included the United Kingdom, where usage of “John Doe” originated during the Middle Ages. However, the legal term John Doe injunction or John Doe order has survived in English law and other legal systems influenced by it. Other names such as “Joe Bloggs” or “John Smith” have sometimes been informally used as placeholders for an everyman in the UK, Australia and New Zealand; such names are seldom used in legal or police circles in the same sense as John Doe.
Well-known legal cases named after placeholders include:
Use of “John Doe” in the sense of an everyman, includes:
Use of “Jane Doe” in the sense of an unidentified corpse, includes:
Under the legal terminology of Ancient Rome, the names “Numerius Negidius” and “Aulus Agerius” were used in relation to hypothetical defendants and plaintiffs.
The name “John Doe” (or “John Doo”), “Richard Roe”, along with “John Roe”, were regularly invoked in English legal instruments to satisfy technical requirements governing standing and jurisdiction, beginning perhaps as early as the reign of England’s King Edward III (1327-1377). Though the rationale behind the choices of Doe and Roe is unknown, there are many suggested folk etymologies. Other fictitious names for a person involved in litigation in medieval English law were “John Noakes” (or “Nokes”) and “John-a-Stiles” (or “John Stiles”). The Oxford English Dictionary states that John Doe is “the name given to the fictitious lessee of the plaintiff, in the (now obsolete in the UK) mixed action of ejectment, the fictitious defendant being called Richard Roe”.
This usage is mocked in the 1834 English song “John Doe and Richard Roe”:
Two giants live in Britain’s land,
John Doe and Richard Roe,
Who always travel hand in hand,
John Doe and Richard Roe.
Their fee-faw-fum’s an ancient plan
To smell the purse of an Englishman,
And, ‘ecod, they’ll suck it all they can,
John Doe and Richard Roe …
This particular use became obsolete in the UK in 1852:
As is well known, the device of involving real people as notional lessees and ejectors was used to enable freeholders to sue the real ejectors. These were then replaced by the fictional characters John Doe and Richard Roe. Eventually the medieval remedies were (mostly) abolished by the Real Property Limitation Act of 1833; the fictional characters of John Doe and Richard Roe by the Common Law Procedure Act 1852; and the forms of action themselves by the Judicature Acts 1873-75.” Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs v Meier and others (2009).
In the UK, usage of “John Doe” survives mainly in the form of John Doe injunction or John Doe order (see above).
8.02 If an unknown person has possession of the confidential personal information and is threatening to disclose it, a ‘John Doe’ injunction may be sought against that person. The first time this form of injunction was used since 1852 in the United Kingdom was in 2005 when lawyers acting for JK Rowling and her publishers obtained an interim order against an unidentified person who had offered to sell chapters of a stolen copy of an unpublished Harry Potter novel to the media.
Unlike the United States, the name “John Doe” does not actually appear in the formal name of the case, for example: X & Y v Persons Unknown HRLR 4.
Well-known cases of unidentified corpses include “Cali Doe” (1979) and “Princess Doe” (1982). The baby victim in a 2001 murder case in Kansas City, Missouri, was referred to as Precious Doe.
In 2009, the New York Times reported the difficulties and unwanted attention experienced by a man actually named John Doe, who had often been suspected of using a pseudonym. He had been questioned repeatedly by airport security staff. Another man named John Doe was often suspected of being an incognito celebrity.
In cases where a large number of unidentified individuals are mentioned, numbers may be appended, such as “Doe #2” or “Doe II”. Operation Delego (2009), which targeted an international child sexual abuse ring, cited 21 numbered “John Does”, as well as other people known by the surnames “Doe”, “Roe”, and “Poe”.
“John Stiles”, “Richard Miles” have been used for the third and fourth participants in an action. “Mary Major” has been used in some federal cases in the US. “James Doe” and “Judy Doe” are among other common variants.
Less often, other surnames ending in -oe have been used when more than two unknown or unidentified persons are named in U.S. court proceedings, e.g., Poe v. Snyder, 834 F.Supp.2d 721 (W. D. Mich. 2011), whose full style is
In Massachusetts, “Mary Moe” is used to refer to pregnant women under the age of 18 petitioning the Superior Court for a judicial bypass exception to the parental consent requirement for abortion.
“Mary Moe” is also used to refer to such cases generally, i.e. “Mary Moe cases”. Sometimes “Mary Doe” may be used for the individuals.
Parallels in other countries include:
Since 1903 a hypothetical “ordinary and reasonable person” has often been known, in the legal parlance of the UK and other Commonwealth countries as “the man on the Clapham omnibus”.
The use and selection of pseudonyms is not standardized in U.S. courts and the practice itself is opposed on legal grounds by some and was rare prior to 1969.
Currently there are no court rules about pseudonym use. The rules of civil procedure …bare silent on the matter … Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a) reads, ‘… In the complaint, the title of the action shall include the names of all the parties …’ The rule contains no guidance as to what parties should do to keep their names confidential.
Prior to … 1969, only one Supreme Court case, three court of appeals’ decisions, and one district court decision in the previous quarter-century featured an anonymous individual as the sole or lead plaintiff. Between 1969 and January 22, 1973, the date when the Supreme Court decided Roe and Doe, there were twenty-one district court and two court of appeals decisions featuring anonymous plaintiffs.