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Flores-Figuroa vs. United States

An extremely interesting case that may affect cybercrime-related court rulings in the US for years to come is currently before the US Supreme Court. The case, “Flores-Figueroa vs. United States” (No. 08-108), concerns Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figuroa, a Mexican citizen who has been a steel plant worker in Illinois since 2000. He was hired under a fake name; he also had a bogus Social Security number (SSN) and Resident Alien card. In 2006 Flores-Figuroa tried to start working under his real name; he gave his employer a new but still fake SSN as well as a forged permanent Resident card with his real name. His employer reported his application to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which determined that he had been using fake documents. Flores-Figueroa was charged with using a false document, entering the US illegally, and aggravated identity theft, because the SSN he presented to his employer two years ago turned out to be the SSN of a minor living in the US. He pleaded guilty to the first two charges and pleaded not guilty to an additional charge of aggravated identity theft under 18 US Code (U.S.C.) § 1028A(a)(1). The US District Court for the Southern District of Iowa found him guilty of aggravated identity theft. He was sentenced to 51 months of prison time for misusing immigration documents and illegal entry into the US and to.two consecutive prison terms of 24 months for aggravated identity theft.

Flores-Figueroa appealed the identity theft conviction on the basis that he did not know that he was using someone else’s SSN. His lawyers asserted that 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1) mandates proof that individuals charged under this statute know that the illegally used identification belongs to someone else. Two appeals courts have already turned down Flores-Figueroa’s appeals on the basis that this statute requires only that someone merely uses falsified identity information, regardless of whether the person is aware that this information belongs to someone else.

Although this case did not involve the use of a computer in the commission of a crime, it appears to have a great amount of potential bearing on future rulings in certain cybercrime-related court cases. The growth of identity theft perpetrated by computer criminals was a major driver for national anti-identity theft legislation being passed and signed into law. Tragically, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Flores-Figueroa, a computer criminal who has been charged with identity theft would be much more likely to be ruled not guilty in court if the criminal simply claims s/he was not aware of any of the identities of the victims. Imagine just how forgetful accused identity thieves will be tempted to become in court! If, on the other hand, the prosecution prevails in the Supreme Court ruling, life will more or less go on as normal when it comes to computer-related identity theft trials.

Prosecuting computer crime is difficult enough. Let’s hope that legal precedents that place unreasonable hurdles in the way of justice do not make prosecuting computer crime even harder.

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