U.S. News

U.S. government loses immigrant identity-theft case

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An illegal immigrant who uses false identification papers must know they belonged to another person to be convicted of identity theft, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday.

The high court’s unanimous ruling was a victory for Ignacio Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican illegal immigrant who used false identification to get a job at a steel plant in Illinois.

He was convicted of aggravated identify theft, a law adopted in 2004 that carries a mandatory two-year prison term. The law has been increasingly used by the federal government to charge some of those arrested in raids at work sites that employ illegal immigrants.

In the high court’s opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer said the law required that prosecutors show that the defendant knew the counterfeit identification belonged to another person.

The ruling, a defeat for the U.S. Justice Department, resolved conflicting appeals court decisions on the issue, and limits prosecutors’ ability to pile identify charges on to illegal immigration cases.

Defense lawyers had argued their clients should not be charged with identity theft. They sought the documentation only to allow them to work and did not know if the numbers were fictitious or had actually belonged to someone else.

The ruling is not expected to affect prosecutions of non-immigration identity-theft cases. Defendants who steal Social Security number for financial gain know they are victimizing a real person.

The ruling comes at a time when President Barack Obama is reviewing how to crack down on illegal immigration.

Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican citizen employed at the steel plant since 2000, initially worked under an assumed name and false Social Security and immigration registration numbers.

In 2006, he told his employer he wanted to be known by his real name and submitted new identification documents.

But it turned out the new set of numbers belonged to other people and the suspicious employer contacted immigration authorities, who arrested Flores-Figueroa.

He pleaded guilty to two counts of misuse of immigration documents and one count of illegally entering the United States, resulting in a 51-month sentence. He faced deportation after serving his term.

After trial, he then was convicted on two counts of aggravated identity theft, which added two years to his sentence. That part of his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court.

Editing by Deborah Charles and Alan Elsner