High Court Rules For Immigrant In ID Theft Case

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The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 Monday that the Bush administration erred in tacking on an additional charge of "aggravated identity theft" when illegal immigrants used forged documents to enter the country.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In its later years, the Bush administration often saw its interpretations of law overturned in the courts. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court added yet another chapter to that history. This time, the policy in question was a routine practice at the Justice Department, charging illegal immigrants with aggravated identity theft when they were caught with phony documents. By unanimous vote, the high court ruled no more.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: In the final years of the Bush administration, immigration officials launched a series of raids on workplaces where hundreds of illegal immigrants were seized, and instead of deporting them, as had been the common practice, they were prosecuted.

One of the tools the Justice Department used was a statute that imposes a mandatory extra two years in prison for aggravated identity theft. Immigration lawyers cried foul. They said the aggravated identity theft law was aimed at people who knowingly steal identity information - for example, to raid someone's bank account, and that it was not meant to apply to someone who just buys fake documents.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed unanimously. Writing for the Court, Justice Stephen Breyer said the aggravated ID theft statute requires the government to prove the defendant knew he was using a document with a number that belonged to someone else, since many counterfeit documents just have numbers that are made up.

Immigration expert Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California Law School at Davis, notes that today's ruling is the third in a row in which the Supreme Court has rejected a Bush administration interpretation of laws relating to immigration.

Mr. KEVIN JOHNSON (Dean, University of California Davis School of Law): That's telling me that the administration is taking some pretty tough positions on immigration-related matters that even a conservative Supreme Court can't swallow.

TOTENBERG: The Obama administration has already begun to back off some of the Bush administration's immigration tactics, but today's ruling puts this one, at least, out of bounds unless Congress changes the law. It's not known how many individuals still in prison must have their convictions invalidated as a result of today's ruling.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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