Monday, May 4, 2009

Of cheese sandwiches and ID theft

Photo used under Creative Commons from DarwinBell

The Supreme Court, in Flores-Figueroa v. United States, has just held that the offense of "aggravated identity theft" requires the defendant to know that the documents that they are using actually belong to someone else.

In 2000, the defendant, Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figueroa gave his employer a false name, birth date, and Social Security number. These identification numbers were fake and did not belong to anyone. Six years later, Figueroa gave his employer new counterfeit Social Security and alien registration cards with his real name and birth date. The indentification numbers in these new documents, however, did belong to someone else and the employer notified immigration officials. Figueroa was charged inter alia with the "aggravated identity theft" which makes it a crime when someone "knowingly...uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person." The aggravated crime adds two years to any prison sentence.

Figueroa argued that he did not know the identification numbers belonged to someone else, thus he was not guilty of the crime. The government, in a bit of mental and grammatical gymnastics, argued that the word "knowingly" did not modify the phrase "a means of identification of another person."

In a 9-0 decision (Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito concurring in judgment but writing separate opinions), the Supreme Court held that the plain language of the statute requires the Government to show that the defendant knew that the means of identification at issue belonged to another person. The Court stated, "If we say that someone knowingly ate a sandwich with cheese, we normally assume that the person knew both that he was eating a sandwich and that it contained cheese."

The LA Times discusses the ruling and notes that the tactic of charging undocumented workers with "aggravated identity theft" gave the government significant leverage to get the workers to plead guilty and facilitate deportation.

What do you think?

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