Monday, May 4, 2009

Put away the pitchforks; there's nothing to rant about here

I've been pretty amused at the over-reaction by the anti-illegal immigrant crowd this evening at word of Monday's U.S. Supreme Court case. The Court had the nerve to reverse the identity theft conviction of an illegal immigrant. The decision, discussed here, was hardly earth-shattering or pro-immigrant. It was just a garden-variety statutory interpretation case. It was really only the kind of decision I would expect geeky appellate lawyers like me would enjoy.

The Court had to consider what the requisite intent of the federal aggravated identity theft statute is. The elements of that crime are that a person knowingly uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person. The Court's decision today was all about what the word knowingly modifies. They unanimously concluded the word knowingly extends to all of the elements, so the defendant has to know the id number he is using belongs to someone else (many of the fake id numbers used by illegal immigrant workers are simply made up instead of taken from citizens). The case didn't have anything to do with the defendant's immigration status. The decision would have been exactly the same had the defendant been a citizen using a fake id to keep his felony record hidden. Read the decision for yourself here.

But the national media made the headlines all about illegal immigrants. "Top Court Sides with Immigrant." "Supreme Court Sides with Undocumented Workers in Identity Theft Case." So the knee-jerks who comment on internet message boards think the Supreme Court has said it's not illegal for immigrants to use fake ids at all. From the discussions on the message boards I have found, you would think that those evil liberals on the Court (all 9 of them are now evil liberals?) unleashed a torrent of illegal immigrants on us poor, innocent, hard-working Americans. Thanks to those corrupt activist justices, illegal immigrants throughout the country are now free, absolutely free, to use my Social Security number, or yours, or anyone's, without impunity. Without any criminal punishment. People are acting like the Supreme Court said it's not a crime AT ALL for an immigrant to use a false id number.

I can only laugh because this decision was nothing like what the commenters on these message boards have been portraying it as. It's certainly not a sign of the apocalypse or a reason to start a revolution or even impeach any Supreme Court justices. For crying out loud, all the court did today was decide what the words in a criminal statute mean. It's the kind of thing criminal attorneys and judges argue about all the time. When a particular statute says a defendant did something intentionally, we argue about what the defendant had to intend. Does the defendant have to just generally intend to do the act or does she have to specifically intend the result? So this case was all about what "knowingly" means.

This decision is all about geeky lawyer word games. The justices weren't the least bit interested in inserting themselves into a public policy debate on illegal immigration. They didn't say it's not a crime for illegal immigrants to use a fake id number for work. They just clarified what the government has to prove if they want to convict those immigrants under the aggravated identity theft statute. If the government can't prove the defendant knew the id number he was using belonged to an actual person, there are plenty of other charges the feds or the individual states can pursue. I promise.

So, relax. No one needs to go apoplectic about this decision. No one needs to scream at their representatives in Congress to "fix this loophole". No one needs to take up arms against the Supreme Court because they have not, in fact, shown themselves to be on the side of the "occupiers". (Seriously, some guy on msnbc's board referred to illegal immigrants as occupiers. Not at all over the top.) The worst that will happen here is that the feds might actually have to to a little more work to get people convicted under the federal aggravated identity theft statute. While I'm sure they don't appreciate the added burden, it really is not the end of the world.


BellsforStacy said...

So I hope at the end of the day, the defendent that was here illegally was deported?

My money is that he probably didn't. He probably went back to work. After he bought another SSN, which he doesn't know belongs to another US citizen. He just bought it from someone, and that person didn't tell him it belongs to Jane Smith in Souix Falls. So how can he be criminally liable?

And you have to understand that in many, many places, it does sort of feel as if legal citizens are being run out of town by those coming illegally. And no one in charge is doing anything about it.

S said...

The defendant in this case was convicted of 3 crimes; only 1 was overturned. He was absolutely criminally liable. The problem here was only a matter of proof. In the absence of that proof, he could only be convicted under other statutes, but not this one.

I don't think he has been deported yet because, for some inexplicable reason, the authorities always want their prison term to be served in full. But I am confident that he will be. ICE is not going to lose track of this guy.

lu said...

having worked in migration and issues that a lot of people have knee-jerk reactions to, i can completely appreciate your sentiment here.

i find that there are alarmists on both the right and the left (those crazy liberals who run our media and our courts! haha) that jump to conclusions no matter what the facts are.

i have similar reactions all the time when i find myself diffusing the activists who want to paint all sexually exploited migrants with the same brush, one that shows them as poor, vulnerable, incapable of making their own choices, and in need of saving.

then again, i also find the same 'the illegals are taking all of our jobs' attitudes are just as one sided and see all irregular migrants and criminals and thieves.

ahhhhhh..... the life of the self righteous is so tough!

S said...

It is a tough life! :) I like to think that I'm more a voice of reason, but there is an awful lot of self-righteousness to it, isn't there.

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