Most of us that practice criminal law in federal court have become familiar with the federal identity fraud statute. In essence, this statute requires a federal judge to impose a two year mandatory minimum sentence on an individual who, in the context of committing a certain enumerated federal felony offense, “knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses . . . a means of identification of another person . . . .” Significantly, this two year sentence must be imposed to run consecutively to any other sentence that the court imposes.
Currently, a split in the circuits exists on the manner in which the term “knowingly” has been interpreted. In some circuits, the Government is required to prove that the defendant is aware that the “means of identification” at issue actually belonged to another person. In other circuits, however, the Government is not required to make such a showing. This showing can be significant because in some cases, particularly those involving undocumented aliens, the Government is unable to prove that the defendant knew that the means of identification actually belonged to someone else.
Earlier this year, in two separate cases, lawyers representing criminal defendants in federal court asked the Supreme Court to resolve the circuit conflict on this important issue. Although these requests were not unusual, the Government’s response to these petitions seems to ensure that the Supreme Court will in fact take up this issue in the upcoming term. As reported over at the Scotusblog, in its brief in response to one of the cert petitions, the government conceded that a “clear and entrenched” conflict existed over the proper interpretation of the law. And based on this conflict, the Justice Department recommended that the Court grant cert to resolve the conflict. The Government’s response brief can be found here, and additional background on the issue can be found here.