OFF THE WIRE
BY: Greta Mart
It may be too late for Steven Burton, a former Martinez resident who was arrested for wearing fake military medals to his 20th Alhambra High School reunion, but the U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday it will determine whether the Stolen Valor Act is constitutional.
Signed into law by President Bush in 2006, the law forbids people from wearing military medals they did not earn, and makes it a federal misdemeanor for anyone to falsely claim to have earned military decorations.
After the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco declared the law unconstitutional as a violation of free-speech rights in August of 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice appealed.
“The Act, as presently drafted, applies to pure speech; it imposes a criminal penalty of up to a year of imprisonment, plus a fine, for the mere utterance or writing of what is, or may be perceived as, a false statement of fact – without anything more,” ruled Judge Milan D. Smith, Jr.
“The Act therefore concerns us because of its potential for setting a precedent whereby the government may proscribe speech solely because it is a lie. While we agree with the dissent that most knowingly false factual speech is unworthy of constitutional protection and that, accordingly, many lies may be made the subject of a criminal law without creating a constitutional problem, we cannot adopt a rule as broad as the government and dissent advocate without trampling on the fundamental right to freedom of speech.”
It is unclear how the Supreme Court’s decision, expected by next summer, will affect Burton.
A federal judge sentenced Burton in March of 2010 to one year of probation and ordered to him to pay a $250 fine for feigning accomplishment as a highly decorated and battle-scarred veteran, despite having never enlisted in the U.S. military, confirmed Thom Mrozek, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.
Burton, 41, graduated from Alhambra High School in 1988. At his 20-year class reunion, held in May of 2008 at the Concord Hilton, Burton wore a dress blue U.S. Marine Corps uniform with Lt. Colonel epaulets combined with a chest bedaubed with 15 highly significant awards and medals.
Burton refused to discuss the case with the media.
According to Burton’s plea agreement filed on Dec. 14, 2009 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Eastern Division, in which Burton pleaded guilty to all charges, his uniform was decorated with a Navy Cross, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Service Badge, Navy and Marine Corps Overseas Service Ribbon, Navy and Marine Corps Presidential Unit Citation, and six other commendation insignias supposedly earned for valiance and injury in combat.
Burton admitted to buying the medals online and at military surplus outlets and blogging about his military experiences, such as service in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, particularly, his combat in Fallujah.
F.B.I. Special Agent Akil David, when requesting a search warrant of Burton’s Palm Springs home, explained he had discovered Internet posts, dated as late as Aug. 2009, in which Burton had blogged about being a Marine.
While it is not illegal to concoct tall tales in cyberspace, it was the sporting of the medals that put Burton in court.
Burton’s alleged ruse was exposed when a former Alhambra High School classmate, now a member of the Navy Supply Corps in Philadelphia, encountered Burton at the reunion and suspiciously took in his uniform and allusions to combat experience in the Middle East.
Commander Colleen Salonga, a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, approached Burton and asked to take a photograph. She then turned it over to the F.B.I. and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) after checking with the Navy and discovering that Burton had never been a member of any U.S. military branch.
After law enforcement looked into the case and filed charges against him, Burton faced one federal misdemeanor count of violating the Stolen Valor Act. Burton initially pleaded not guilty in November and was freed after posting a $10,000 bail.
The maximum sentence applicable to cases concerning violation of the Stolen Valor Act is one year in prison and a fine of $100,000 or “twice the gross gain or gross loss resulting from the offense, whichever is greatest,” according to the law.
“If the Act is constitutional … then there would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one’s height, weight, age, or financial status on Match.com or Facebook, or falsely representing to one’s mother that one
does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin, or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway. The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time,” wrote Judge Smith in his August 2010 opinion in the case United States of America v. Xavier Alvarez.