Supreme Court narrows identify-theft law in immigration case

To prove aggravated identify theft – which brings a mandatory two years in jail – prosecutors must show defendants knew their fake IDs belonged to a real person.

A Mexican citizen who used false identification to live and work illegally in the US cannot face an additional two years in prison for aggravated identity theft unless he knew his fake ID belonged to a real person, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In a unanimous decision, the justices said the government failed to prove that Ignacio Flores-Figueroa knew his fraudulent document numbers belonged to an actual person.

The decision makes it harder for federal prosecutors to use the aggravated identity theft statute to boost prison sentences in undocumented immigrant cases.

Instead, prosecutors must now prove that the defendant knew that the numbers on the identification documents he or she presented were assigned to real people.

The law requires a mandatory minimum two years in prison in addition to any other sentence for anyone who "knowingly … uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person."

Mr. Flores had worked illegally in the US for six years with documents containing a false name and birth date, fake Social Security number, and counterfeit alien registration card.

In 2006, he submitted a new set of documents to his employer. This time he used his real name. The numbers on his Social Security card and alien registration card were not simply made up. They were numbers that had been assigned to other people.

Flores was charged with illegal entry into the US and with misusing immigration documents. In addition, because the numbers on his documents belonged to real people he was also charged with aggravated identity theft.

Flores objected to the identity theft charge, arguing at trial that the government couldn't prove he knew the numbers on his fake documents actually belonged to a real person.

The government countered that it didn't have to prove he had such knowledge.

Flores was convicted of all three crimes. The convictions were upheld by the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals based in St. Louis. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the location of the court.]

On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed that decision and remanded the case for further action.

In his majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer focused on the importance of the word "knowingly" in the statute. "As a matter of ordinary English grammar, it seems natural to read the statute's word 'knowingly' as applying to all subsequently listed elements of the crime," he wrote.

"Would we apply a statute that makes it unlawful 'knowingly to possess drugs' to a person who steals a passenger's bag without knowing that the bag has drugs inside?" Justice Breyer asked.

"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," he said.

The government offered a different example in its brief: "John knowingly discarded the homework of his sister."

In the government's example, the sentence doesn't necessarily imply that John knew that the homework belonged to his sister. But Breyer said that under ordinary usage, the sentence implies such knowledge.

Breyer said Congress drew a distinction in the wording of the statute between identity fraud and identity theft. A defendant who is aware that he is using someone else's identity can be deemed more guilty than someone who simply uses made-up numbers in a fake document, Breyer said.

The decision in Flores-Figueroa v. US resolves a split among the federal appeals on the issue. Judges in Boston, San Francisco, and Washington had adopted the view now embraced by the Supreme Court, while judges in St. Louis, Atlanta, and Richmond had favored the government's view.

Breyer rejected government concerns that the court's ruling might make it more difficult to prosecute false document cases. "In the classic case of identity theft, intent is generally not difficult to prove," Breyer wrote. "Where a defendant has used another person's identification information to get access to that person's bank account, the government can prove knowledge with little difficulty. The same is true when the defendant has gone through someone else's trash to find discarded credit card and bank statements."

Justice Samuel Alito concurred in the judgment but wrote separately to warn against reading the decision as the adoption of an inflexible rule. He said that in future cases courts should continue to consider context when interpreting criminal statutes.

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