The names "John Doe" or "John Roe" for men, "Jane Doe" or "Jane Roe" for women, "Johnny Doe" and "Janie Doe" for children, or just "Doe" non-gender-specifically are used as placeholder names for a party whose true identity is unknown or must be withheld in a legal action, case, or discussion. The names are also used to refer to a corpse or hospital patient whose identity is unknown. This practice is widely used in the United States and Canada, but is rarely used in other English-speaking countries including the United Kingdom, from which the use of "John Doe" in a legal context originates. The names "Joe Bloggs" or "John Smith" are used in the UK as placeholder names, (mainly to mean 'any old person', the classic 'Everyman') as well as in Australia and New Zealand.
John Doe is sometimes used to refer to a typical male in other contexts as well, in a similar manner to John Q. Public in the United States or Joe Public, John Smith or Joe Bloggs in Britain. For example: the first name listed on a form might be John Doe, along with a fictional address or other fictional information to provide an example of how to fill in the form. The name is also used frequently in US popular culture, for example in the Frank Capra film Meet John Doe. John Doe was also the name of a 2002 American television series.
Similarly, a child or baby whose identity is unknown may be referred to as Baby Doe. A notorious murder case in Kansas City, Missouri, referred to the baby victim as Precious Doe. Other unidentified female murder victims have also been nicknamed by the public or investigators as "Cali Doe" and "Princess Doe". Additional persons may be called James Doe, Judy Doe, etc. However, to avoid possible confusion, if two anonymous or unknown parties are cited in a specific case or action, the surnames Doe and Roe may be used simultaneously; for example, "John Doe v. Jane Roe". If several anonymous parties are referenced, they may simply be labelled John Doe #1, John Doe #2, etc. (the U.S. Operation Delego cited 21 (numbered) "John Doe"s) or labelled with other variants of Doe / Roe / Poe / etc. Other early alternatives such as John Stiles and Richard Miles are now rarely used, and Mary Major has been used in some American federal cases.
The Doe names are also used for anonymous or unknown defendants. Another set of names used for anonymous parties, particularly plaintiffs, are Richard Roe for men and Jane Roe for women (as in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court abortion decision Roe v. Wade).
Bearing the actual name John Doe can cause difficulty, such as being stopped by airport security or suspected of being an incognito celebrity.
The term John Doe or Jane Doe is used in US police investigations when the identity of the victim(s) is unknown or incorrect.
The name "John Doe", often spelled "Richard Roe," along with "John Roe" or "Doo" 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).
Other fictitious names for a person involved in litigation under English law were John-Noakes, or John Noakes/Nokes and John-a-Stiles/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 (Respondent) v Meier and another(FC) (Appellant) and others and another (FC)(Appellant) and another (2009).
"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 in 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.
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.
In addition to Doe and Roe, other "_oe" names 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
and Friedman v. Ferguson, No. 87-3758, unpublished disposition, 850 F.2d 689 (4th Cir., 29 June 1988), whose full style is
In a lawsuit in the UK about the publication of D.H. Lawrence's novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover" the 'average person' was referred to as "the man on the Clapham omnibus". Parallels in other cultures are in France "Monsieur Brun", in Italy "Signor Rossi", in India "Ashok Kumar".
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