- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2009


A unanimous Supreme Court said Monday that people who use phony IDs, in this case an illegal immigrant using it to get work, cannot be considered identity thieves without proof they knew they were stealing someone’s Social Security and other numbers.

The court’s decision limits federal authorities’ use of a 2004 law, intended to get tough on identity thieves, against immigrants who are picked up in workplace raids and found to be using false Social Security and alien registration numbers.

Pro-immigration groups had complained that federal authorities used the threat of prosecution on the identity theft charge, which carries a two-year mandatory prison term, to win guilty pleas on lesser charges and acceptance of prompt deportation.

“These prosecutions have been taken off the table,” said Nina Perales, southwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The court, in an opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, rejected the government’s argument that prosecutors need only show that the identification numbers belong to someone else, regardless of whether the defendant knew it.

Justice Breyer said intent is often easy to prove in what he called classic identity theft. “Where a defendant has used another person’s information to get access to that person’s bank account, the government can prove knowledge with little difficulty,” he said.

But immigrants without proper documentation need identity documents and often buy them from forgers, never knowing if they belong to anyone.

Such was the case with the illegal-immigrant worker on the winning side Monday. Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican employed at a steel plant in East Moline, Ill., traveled to Chicago and bought numbers from someone who trades in counterfeit IDs.

Unlike earlier fictitious numbers Mr. Flores-Figueroa used, these numbers belonged to real people.

He was arrested in 2006 and convicted on false document and identity theft charges. He appealed his conviction as an identity thief, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld the conviction. With appeals courts divided on the issue, the Supreme Court stepped into the case.

The Bush administration used the identity theft law hundreds of times last year. Workers accused of immigration violations found themselves facing the more serious identity theft charge as well, without any indication they knew their counterfeit Social Security and other identification numbers belonged to actual people.

After last year’s raid on a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, authorities charged 270 undocumented workers with identity theft. They all accepted plea deals in which they also agreed not to contest deportation. The Obama administration has shifted the main focus of immigration raids to employers.

In other actions Monday, the justices:

c Announced they will decide whether sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without parole can be considered a cruel and unusual punishment.

c Ordered the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia to consider reinstating the $550,000 fine that the Federal Communications Commission imposed on CBS over singer Janet Jackson’s breast-baring performance at the 2004 Super Bowl.

c Said Shell Oil Co. cannot be held responsible for cleanup of a contaminated Superfund site owned by a defunct company simply because it delivered chemicals to the site. They also decided that railroad companies that leased the defunct company part of the land would have to pay for a small part of the cleanup.

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