Federal prosecutors pursuing illegal immigrants use a 2004 law that imposes a mandatory two-year prison sentence on some people who commit identity fraud. The Supreme Court has agreed to decide just how blunt that instrument is, the New York Times reports. The question, which has divided federal appeals courts, is whether workers who use false Social Security and alien registration numbers must know that they belong to a real person to be subject to a two-year sentence extension for aggravated identity theft. Put another way: Is it identity theft to pick nine random numbers out of the air and submit them as a Social Security number if that number turns out to belong to a real person?
The federal appellate court in St. Louis affirmed a conviction under the law, saying that the government needed to prove only a knowing use of false information and not that the defendant knew the fake number belonged to a real person. Courts in Richmond and Atlanta agreed, but courts based in Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have disagreed. They said prosecutors must prove the defendant knew the fake number belonged to someone else. Kevin Johnson, dean of the law school at the University of California, Davis, and an authority on immigration law, said the Supreme Court's decision in the case is likely to have a big impact. “This is the tool that the federal government has been using in the recent raid cases,” Johnson said.