Monday, May 4, 2009
The Supreme Court issued its opinion this morning in Flores-Figueroa v. United States, a case involving identity theft, ruling 9-0 against the government. This case resolves a circuit split and will have significant effects on immigration enforcement like the large-scale Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids that we've blogged about occasionally.
A federal statute defines "aggravated identity theft," which carries a mandatory 2-year prison term, as when a person "knowingly transfers, possesses or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person." The question was one of statutory interpretation: exactly what must be done "knowingly"? Must a person only knowingly transfer, possess, or use something that ends up being the identification of another person? Or must a person know that what they are using is the identification actually assigned to another person. I'll put this in easier terms. If you buy a fake id, do you have to just know that it's a fake id, or do you have to also know that the id is really that of another real person, rather than simply a made-up person?
In a straightforward grammatical analysis (although the term "transitive verb" is used, which maybe goes beyond the grammar knowledge of many of us), the Court held that "knowingly" applies to all of the words that follow in the sentence: the verbs but also the object of those verbs. Thus, a person must know that false documents use the information of real other people, that they are not simply made up, in order to be guilty of aggravated identity theft.
Aggravated identity theft was one of the tools used to pressure workers at the Agriprocessor's raid last summer (see also here) to plead guilty to a lesser crime which would foreclose seeking any sort of remedy or relief under immigration law.