Supreme Court rules against government in immigration identity-theft case
In a 9-0 decision, the justices say the crime is limited to those who knew they had stolen another person's Social Security number. The decision limits efforts to prosecute illegal workers.
By David G. Savage
The Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2009
Reporting Form Washington — The Supreme Court today took away one tool for prosecuting and deporting workers who are in this country illegally, ruling that the crime of identity theft is limited to those who knew they had stolen another person's Social Security number.
The 9-0 decision overturns part of an Illinois man's conviction for using false documents.
The court agreed he could be imprisoned for using an ID card he knew was false, but it also said he could not be charged with a felony of 'aggravated identity theft' because he did not know he was using someone's Social Security number.
Last year, immigration officials in the Bush administration had rounded up hundreds of illegal workers at several plants and charged them with 'aggravated identity theft.'
Facing such a serious charge, many agreed to plead guilty and be deported.
The lesser charge of using false documents is not a felony and does not trigger an automatic deportation.
In today's opinion in Flores-Figueroa vs. United States, the court cited the words of the identity theft law. It refers to a person who 'knowingly' uses the means of identification 'of another person.'
During the oral argument in the case, the justices were told that about half of all the possible combinations of nine-digit Social Security numbers have been used at some time.
Ignacio Flores-Figueroa, a citizen of Mexico, said he had bought a set of false documents in Chicago and used them to work at a steel plant in East Moline, Ill. His employer later reported him to immigration authorities. He was charged with entering the country illegally, using false documents and aggravated identity theft. Only the latter charge was at issue in the Supreme Court.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer said that in most cases of identity theft, the defendant sets out to steal someone's identity so to take money from their accounts. In this case, the illegal immigrant wanted to use a false Social Security number as though it was his, but he did not know or care whether it was a real person's number.