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Lie about a military medal? A new Stolen Valor Act targets fraud

September 13, 2012|By Richard Simon
  • A U.S. Navy Medal of Honor. A proposed law would make it a crime to benefit substantially for faking military honors.
A U.S. Navy Medal of Honor. A proposed law would make it a crime to benefit… (Naval History & Heritage…)

WASHINGTON -- The House on Thursday passed a new Stolen Valor Act in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down an earlier law making it a crime to lie about military medals.

The court ruled in June that falsely claiming military honors, while "contemptible," was protected by the 1st Amendment. The new measure, passed 410 to 3, makes it a crime to fraudulently claim to be a medal recipient "with intent to obtain money, property or other tangible benefit.’’

“The need to protect the honor, service and sacrifice of our veterans and military personnel is as strong today as it has ever been,’’ said Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), the bill’s chief sponsor. A similar measure is awaiting Senate action.

The court ruling grew out of the prosecution of Xavier Alvarez, a former member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District governing board in eastern Los Angeles County who boasted of receiving the Medal of Honor, but who never served in the military.

Proponents say the new measure would withstand constitutional challenge because it targets those who seek to profit from misrepresenting themselves as medal recipients. Violators could face a fine and up to a year in prison.

Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel in the ACLU’s Washington office, called the measure unnecessary. "Fraud is already illegal," he said.

But he said the narrower House-approved measure is better than earlier proposals, which could have covered lying about military service "to impress a girl in a bar."

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, said the new law could run into a constitutional challenge depending on how prosecutors define "other tangible benefit."

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who’s sponsoring the Military Service Integrity Act, has said that lying about a medal to improve one’s credibility in a political campaign or to burnish a job resume would quality as tangible benefit.

"It’s going to come down to how prosecutors use the law," Turley said. "What’s clear is that the vast majority of cases prosecuted under the original law cannot be prosecuted under this law because the government cannot criminalize the simple act of lying."

Lawmakers believe that Justice Anthony Kennedy opened the door to a new law by writing:

"Where false claims are made to effect a fraud or secure moneys or other valuable considerations, say offers of employment, it is well established that the government may restrict speech without affronting the First Amendment."

The 2006 law was passed in response to a  proliferation of military impostors. In Illinois, one man attended Marine Corps functions posing as a retired colonel, claiming to have received the Purple Heart eight times as well as the Navy Cross. It turned out he never served in the Marines, according to a House Judiciary Committee report.

In 2003, 642 Virginia residents sought an exemption from state tax on military benefits by claiming to have received the Medal of Honor despite the fact that at the time, there were only four living Medal of Honor recipients in Virginia and 132 nationwide.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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