Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Flores-Figueroa v. U. S.

Are you aware of Flores-Figueroa v. U. S., No. 08-108. May 4, 2009?

A federal “aggravated identity theft” statute that adds two years to the sentence of someone who uses false identity documents in commission of another crime requires proof that the offender knew the information belonged to another person, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.

The defendant in Flores-Figueroa v. U. S. worked illegally at a steel plant using forged Social Security and alien registration cards he had purchased.

His employer became suspicious of the documents and contacted federal authorities, who found that the Social Security and alien registration documents listed numbers that belonged to other people.

The defendant pleaded guilty to charges of misuse of immigration documents and illegal entry. After a bench trial, he was also convicted of violating the identity theft statute U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1), which tacks an additional two years onto the sentence of anyone who “during and in relation to any felony violation enumerated in subsection (c), knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person.”

The defendant appealed the additional sentence, arguing that the government had presented no evidence that he knew the numbers belonged to an actual person.

The 8th Circuit upheld the conviction. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

In reversing the 8th Circuit, the Court rejected the government’s argument that the statute requires only that the offender knowingly used false documents, not that the information necessarily belonged to another.

“As a matter of ordinary English grammar, it seems natural to read the statute’s word ‘knowingly’ as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime,” wrote Justice Stephen Breyer for the majority.

“The government cannot easily claim that the word ‘knowingly’ applies only to the statute’s first four words, or even its first seven.”

The Court also dismissed the government’s argument that proving knowledge that the documents identify someone else would be difficult, if not impossible, thwarting the intent of the law.

“Congress used the word ‘knowingly’ followed by a list of offense elements,” the opinion states. “And we cannot find indications in statements of its purpose or in the practical problems of enforcement sufficient to overcome the ordinary meaning, in English or through ordinary interpretive practice, of the words that it wrote.”

U.S. Supreme Court. Flores-Figueroa v. U. S., No. 08-108. May 4, 2009. Lawyers USA No. 993-729.

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