Justice Department asks appeals courts to uphold law punishing phony war heroes

By Dan Elliott, AP
Friday, October 1, 2010

Feds try to save law punishing military phonies

DENVER — The U.S. Justice Department will appeal two court decisions that said a federal law making it illegal to lie about being a war hero is unconstitutional.

Federal prosecutors in Colorado said Friday they will appeal a ruling by a federal judge in Denver that the Stolen Valor Act violates free speech.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, ruling in a California case, also found the law unconstitutional. Late Thursday, prosecutors asked that court to reconsider.

The law makes it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail to falsely claim to have received a military medal.

Supporters say the Constitution doesn’t protect people who knowingly lie. They argue the law is needed to protect the honor of real heroes.

Opponents say the law puts too much power in government hands, and that lying for financial gain is already covered by fraud statutes.

In the California case, Xavier Alvarez, a local water board official from Pomona, was indicted in 2007 after saying at a public forum that he was a retired Marine who received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration.

Alvarez apparently never served in the military. He pleaded guilty on condition that he be allowed to appeal on First Amendment grounds. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit ruled 2-1 in his favor in August.

On Thursday, government attorneys asked the full court to reconsider, saying the case raises “exceptionally important” questions about the First Amendment. The court hasn’t indicated whether it will grant the request.

Alvarez’s lawyer, Jonathan Libby, said Friday he believes the full appeals court would also find the law unconstitutional.

In the Colorado case, Rick Glen Strandlof, who founded a veterans group in Colorado Springs, was arrested in 2009 after claiming he was an ex-Marine who was wounded in Iraq and had received the Purple Heart and Silver Star. The Marine Corps said it had no record that Strandlof ever served.

A Denver federal judge threw out the charge against Strandlof in July.

Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Denver, said prosecutors will file an appeal with the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in early November.

Strandlof’s lawyer, Robert Pepin, said he believes the arguments against the law are strong and said he has “high hopes” of prevailing at the appeals level.

Doug Sterner, a military historian who supports the law, welcomed news of the appeals.

“I think we’ve got a very good chance in the 10th (Circuit), and I think we’ve got a good shot in the 9th,” he said. “If nothing else, we’re keeping the dialogue on this alive, which is important not just to veterans but to military history.”

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