WASHINGTON -- A unanimous Supreme Court said Monday that undocumented workers who use phony IDs can't be considered identity thieves without proof they knew they were stealing real people's Social Security and other numbers.
The court's decision limits federal authorities' use of a 2004 law, intended to get tough on identity thieves, against immigrants who are picked up in workplace raids and found to be using false Social Security and alien registration numbers.
Advocates for immigrants had complained that federal authorities used the threat of prosecution on the identity theft charge, which carries a two-year mandatory prison term, to win guilty pleas on lesser charges and acceptance of prompt deportation.
The court, in an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, rejected the government's argument that prosecutors need only show the identification numbers belong to someone else, regardless of whether the defendant knew it.
Breyer said intent is often easy to prove in what he called classic identity theft. "Where a defendant has used another person's information to get access to that person's bank account, the government can prove knowledge with little difficulty," Breyer said.
But immigrants without proper documentation need identity documents and often buy them from forgers, never knowing if they belong to anyone.
Such was the case with the undocumented worker on the winning side Monday. Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican immigrant employed at a steel plant in East Moline, Ill., traveled to Chicago and bought numbers from someone who trades in counterfeit IDs.
Unlike earlier fictitious numbers Flores-Figueroa used, these numbers belonged to real people.
Flores-Figueroa had worked at the plant under a false name for six years. His decision to use his real name and exchange one set of phony numbers for another aroused his employer's suspicions.
He was arrested in 2006 and convicted on false document and identity theft charges.
He appealed his conviction as an identity thief, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld the conviction. With appeals courts divided on the issue, the Supreme Court stepped into the case.
The Bush administration used the identity theft law hundreds of times last year. Workers accused of immigration violations found themselves facing the more serious identity theft charge as well, without any indication they knew their counterfeit Social Security and other identification numbers belonged to actual people and were not made up.
After last year's raid on a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, authorities charged 270 undocumented workers with identity theft. They all accepted plea deals in which they also agreed not to contest deportation.
But illustrating the arbitrary nature of the law -- which several justices commented on during arguments in February -- an additional 100 workers arrested in the same raid faced less serious charges because their identification numbers were made up.
The Obama administration has shifted the main focus of immigration raids to employers.
The case is Flores-Figueroa v. U.S., 08-108.