Previously, I have questioned the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act, which criminalized false claims of military medals and decorations. Now, two cases in Colorado could become a test for viability of the act — an appropriate forum given it is the home state of Rep. John Tony Salazar who was the chief sponsor of the 2005 law. The cases involve two men, Xavier Alvarez and Rick Glen Strandlof (shown left) who are challenging the law as a violation of their first amendment rights. Both claimed to be decorated Marines. Dan Elliott has an interesting article on these cases in The Los Angeles Times.
Notably neither man has been accused by prosecutors of seeking financial gain for himself. That is critical because we have fraud and conspiracy laws that have been used against people making false claims for personal gain. Since these laws already punish those who use false claims to secure donations or speaking fees or other benefits, the Stolen Valor Act is most applicable to case of simple false bravado and bragging.
In the case of Xavier Alvarez of Pomona, Calif (the case was moved to Oregon), the accused was elected a water district board member in 2007 and claimed at a meeting that he was a retired Marine and recipient of the Medal of Honor. A pretty stupid claim given the small number of MoH recipients and easy confirmation of such claims. Alvarez, however, seemed unwilling to go with a simple Silver Star and a Purple Heart. Turns out that Alvarez never even served in the military unless he could claim the water board made him some type of Seabee.
Then there is Rick Glen Strandlof, who claimed to be wounded Marine veteran from Iraq who received a Purple Heart and Silver Star. Notably, he founded an organization in Colorado Springs that helped homeless veterans. He also pleaded guilty while reserving his right to challenge the constitutionality of the Act.
I have considerable reservations about a criminal charge for false claims of heroism alone. I have a constitutional right to burn a flag but, if I do so while wearing a purple heart, I can be criminally charged. It is a form of free speech, in my view, that is protected under the first amendment. People adopt false personas for various reasons — few good reasons to be sure. However, if Congress can criminalize false military claims, it can criminalize false claims by architects and accountants that are made without financial benefit or fraud.
Craig Missakian, a federal prosecutor in the California case, insists that Congress can prosecute such cases on the basis of the Constitution’s grant of authority to raise and support an army, and that includes, by extension, “protecting the worth and value of these medals.” That interpretation would effectively use this narrow provision to support an endless array of criminal provisions since a great variety of things could be viewed as inimical to military service.
I understand the motivations of Rep. Salazar and the other sponsors and share their anger at these cases. I find false claims of military honors to be repugnant and worth of social condemnation. I strongly support prosecuting people who use such claims for financial gain. However, under this standard, half of the pick up lines in bars across the country could be criminalized. It is another example, in my view, of the over-criminalization of our society where every repugnant act has to be criminalized to show how strongly we feel about it (here). These two men deserve to be social pariahs, but I do not believe that they deserve to be felons absent a claim of financial gain.
For the full story, click here.