Supreme Court to consider immigrant’s ID theft case By MARK SHERMAN Associated Press Feb. 22, 2009, 10:34AM WASHINGTON — Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figueroa, an undocumented worker from Mexico, made a curious and undeniably bad decision. After working under an assumed name for six years, he decided to use his real name and exchanged one set of phony identification numbers for another. The change made his employer suspicious and the authorities were called in. The old numbers were made up, but the new ones he bought happened to belong to real people. Federal prosecutors said that was enough to label Flores-Figueroa an identity thief. The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on prosecutors’ aggressive use of a new law that was intended to strengthen efforts to combat identity theft. In at least hundreds of cases 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. The government has used the charge, which carries a mandatory two-year minimum prison term, to persuade people to plead guilty to the lesser immigration charges and accept prompt deportation. Many of those undocumented workers had been arrested in immigration raids. The case hinges on how the justices resolve this question: Does it matter whether someone using a phony ID knows that it belongs to someone else? The government, backed by victims’ rights groups, says no. The “havoc wrecked on the victim’s life is the same either way,” said Stephen Masterson, a Los Angeles-based lawyer, in his brief for the victims’ rights groups. On the other side, Flores-Figueroa and more than 20 immigrants’ rights groups, defense lawyers and privacy experts say that the law Congress passed in 2004 was aimed at the identity thief who gains access to people’s private information to drain their accounts and run up bills in their name. Surveys estimate that more than 8 million people in the United States are victims of identity theft each year. Flores-Figueroa acknowledges he used fraudulent documents to get and keep his job at a steel plant in East Moline, Ill. But he “had no intention of stealing anyone’s identity,” his lawyers said in their brief to the court. He traveled to Chicago and bought numbers from someone who trades in counterfeit IDs. Had he been caught while using the fictitious name and numbers that went with it, he could not have been charged with the more serious offense. Federal appeals courts in St. Louis, which ruled against Flores-Figueroa, Atlanta and Richmond, Va., have come down on the government’s side. Appeals courts based in Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have ruled for defendants. The government’s use of identity theft charges in immigration cases was on full display in last year’s raid on a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. Authorities charged 270 undocumented workers with identity theft, including its threat of two years in prison. Chuck Roth, litigation director for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, called the charge “a bludgeon” that was intended to elicit guilty pleas to lesser charges. Roth’s group joined one of the briefs supporting Flores-Figueroa. All 270 workers accepted plea deals in which they also agreed not to contest deportation. An additional 100 workers arrested in the same raid were using unassigned numbers and faced charges with little prospect of prison time. The case is Flores-Figueroa v. U.S., 08-108.