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What Does It Mean to "Know" Something?

By Lauri Apple in News on Oct 23, 2008 4:55PM

i-551old77l-back.jpg On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the case of Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figueroa, an illegal immigrant and worker at an East Moline steel plant who earlier this year was convicted of aggravated identity theft and sentenced to 75 months in the federal pokie. (That's a lot of tax dollars going to incarcerate another country's citizen. Just saying.) The issue in this case involves the federal charge of aggravated identity theft and intent: i.e., must the government show that a defendant knew that the identification he or she used, owned or transferred belonged to somebody else in order to score a conviction?

According to the cert petition filed by his lawyers with the SCOTUS, in those halcyon pre-TerrorTerrorTerror days of 2000, before we decided to build a fence separating ourselves from Mexico, Flores-Figueroa picked a Social Security number that didn't belong to anyone and used a fake name to secure employment. In 2006, he decided that he wanted to use his real name, and bought a fake Social Security card and Permanent Resident card from somebody in Chicago to present to another employer. That employer became suspicious, called the feds, and all of a sudden Flores-Figueroa was in deep mierda.

Flores-Figueroa pled guilty to two counts of Misuse of an Immigration Document and one count of Illegal Entry, the cert petition states. However, he denied knowing that the numbers he chose had previously been issued by the government to another person, and pled not guilty to the aggravated identity theft charges. He didn't know the documents featured other people's digits, the legal documents assert. The district and circuit courts didn't buy it.

The federal statute under which Flores-Figueroa was convicted requires that the defendant "knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person." Flores-Figueroa says he didn't know his illegal numbers belonged to anyone else -- so how could he "knowingly" steal anyone's identity? The 8th Circuit argued, "knowingly" only refers to "transfers, possesses, or uses" -- not the "of another person" part of the statute. Since Flores-Figueroa "knowingly possessed" illegal documents, he violated the law. (See how fun law is?)

But hold up: Three circuits disagree with the 8th Circuit, holding that a defendant has to "knowingly" misappropriate the ID of another person to be found guilty. You can blame ideology in part for this one: the more liberal interpretation, which requires the "another person's ID" element to prove intent (and which is what those hippie activist judges on the 9th Circuit Court say), is friendlier to immigrants. Meanwhile, the 8th Circuit stance would likely dissuade immigrants from trying to seek employment by imposing stiffer penalties for "making shit up."

Currently, folks in more lenient circuits are avoiding prosecution, while Flores-Figueroa and others are getting sent up to do their bits. And this isn't fair, which is why the Supremes will hear this case -- even though many of their rulings aren't fair these days, either.