Wednesday, 04 December 2013 01:43

U.S. v. Godin: The Knowing Use of Another Person's Means of Identification

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In a case brought before the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2008, a challenged was made to a conviction for aggravated identity theft under 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1). The law mandates a sentence of two years in prison for certain felonies if "'during and in relation to' the felony, the perpetrator 'knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person.'" The court considered the extent to which the "knowingly" mens rea should be applied. In other words, for a conviction under the law is a defendant required to know that a means of identification (in this case, a Social Security number), belongs to another individual?

In 2006, Cori A. Godin opened accounts at eight banks and credit unions using seven different Social Security numbers (SSNs) that she created by altering the fourth and fifth digits of her own SSN. Of these seven numbers, just one actually belonged to another individual. Godin opened a bank account with this number, but gave the bank her real name, address, birth date, driver's license number, and telephone number.

In addition to six counts of bank fraud and ten counts of Social Security fraud, Godin was charged with one count of aggravated identity theft for knowingly using the SSN that belonged to someone else during and in regard to one of counts of bank fraud and one of the counts of Social Security fraud. She pleaded guilty to all charges but the aggravated identity theft.

When instructing the jury at trial, the District Court stated as follows, according to court documents: "To convict Cori Godin of this offense, the government must prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt: First, Cori Godin committed bank fraud and/or social security fraud felony violations. The parties stipulate that she did so. Second, during and in relation to one or both of those other felony violations, Cori Godin knowingly used a means of identification without lawful authority. Third, that means of identification belonged to another person.... 'Knowingly' means that the act was done voluntarily and intentionally and not because of mistake or accident. The government must prove that Cori Godin knew that she did not have lawful authority to use the means of identification in question. The government is not required to prove that she knew the means of identification actually belonged to another person."

The jury found Godin guilty of aggravated identity theft, and she appealed on the grounds that the court "charged the jury in error" and that there was not enough evidence to convict her of the charge.

In a division of opinion on whether the "knowingly" requirement in § 1028A(a)(1) extends to "of another person," the Fourth Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits have found that it does not, the D.C. Circuit has concluded that it does.

According to court documents, the appeals court stated that " Using all methods of statutory construction available to us, we are unable to ascertain whether Congress intended the "knowingly" mens rea requirement to extend to "of another person." The language of § 1028A is ambiguous. The ambiguity cannot be resolved by the statutory structure, the title, or the legislative history. We hold that the rule of lenity applies, and the scienter requirement must stretch to "of another person." Thus, the District Court instructed the jury in error."

In regard to the insufficiency of evidence raised by Godin, the court ruled that "Because a rational fact-finder could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that Godin knew that the false social security number was assigned to another person, we will reverse Godin's conviction for aggravated identity theft under § 1028A(a)(1)."

For the foregoing reasons, the appeals court reversed Godin's conviction and remanded the case with instructions to dismiss the aggravated identity theft count in the indictment, and to vacate the sentence as to that count as well.

Resources

United States v. Cori A. Godin, Decided July 18, 2008

18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1)

United States District Court District of Maine, Memorandum of Decision in Support of Jury Charge

Godin Case Comments, Suffolk University Law Review

 

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