The Supreme Court accepted a case Monday that has significant implications for the government's crackdown on illegal immigration, agreeing to review whether prosecutors have to prove that defendants in aggravated identity theft cases knew they were victimizing a real person.
The justices will hear the appeal of Ignacio Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican immigrant who used false identification to get a job at a steel plant in Illinois. He was convicted of aggravated identity theft and other counts and sentenced to more than six years in prison.
Flores-Figueroa argued that the government failed to prove that he knew the fraudulent documents belonged to a real person as opposed to being fabricated.
Lower courts ruled that the government did not have to prove that, accepting the Justice Department's position in this and other aggravated identify theft cases.
Three appellate courts have rendered decisions backing the government. But three other appellate courts have ruled otherwise, and the Supreme Court is expected to resolve the dispute.
The importance of the case to prosecutors was shown during a raid on a kosher meatpacking plant in rural Iowa in May. As hundreds of immigration agents descended on the plant, prosecutors summoned defense lawyers to the U.S. courthouse in Cedar Rapids. Their message was blunt: The illegal immigrants arrested must plead guilty to lesser counts or face indictment on charges of aggravated identity theft and possible mandatory two-year prison terms.
"It was a hammer over everyone's head," said Dan Vondra, a lawyer who represented several of the 302 immigrants who quickly took the deal. "For these people, two years in federal prison was unbearable."
The raid highlighted the Bush administration's increasing use of the tough new charge in its crackdown on illegal immigrants at work sites, part of the escalating campaign against undocumented immigrants nationwide.
But the tactic is under attack from critics, and the split among appellate courts over the government's burden of proof in aggravated identity theft cases has now prompted the Supreme Court review.
An adverse Supreme Court ruling probably would not affect the government's ability to charge aggravation in nonimmigration identity theft cases. A criminal who, for example, steals someone's Social Security number and empties his or her bank account clearly knows he is victimizing a real person.
But experts said a loss for the Justice Department in the Flores-Figueroa case would devastate its ability to bring aggravated identity theft cases against immigrants because most of them do not know whether their fake IDs belong to someone else.