In a unanimous decision issued today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that many of the convictions and sentences given to immigrant detainees from the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville were in error.

According to the ruling, federal prosecutors have inappropriately used aggravated identity theft laws to prosecute undocumented workers. The decision directly impacts Iowa since of the 389 workers taken during a May 2008 raid at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, 302 were fast-tracked with criminal charges, most related to identity theft.

The ruling, written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, mandates a prosecutor be able to show immigrant detainees knowingly used identification that actually belonged to another person. In the case of the Postville detainees, their knowledge regarding the origin of fraudulent employment documents was not a factor, the very fact that they were using fake documents led to their quick conviction on identity theft-related charges.

“As a matter of ordinary English grammar, it seems natural to read the statute’s word ‘knowingly’ as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime,” wrote Breyer in the decision.

The case was brought to the Supreme Court by Ignacio Flores Figueroa, a Mexican citizen who gained employment at an Illinois steel plant while using false documents. Although he originally provided fake documents to his employer that contained completely falsified numbers, later documents he used contained numbers assigned to another individual.

He was eventually arrested and subsequently pleaded guilty to immigration-related offenses. He fought the identity theft charges, claiming that he did not ‘knowingly’ commit the crime. The initial conviction on those charges was upheld in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, but struck down today with high court’s ruling.

Many believe the government effectively coerced detainees from Postville into accepting plea deals on lesser charges by pressuring them with the more lengthy and harsh sentences that could be imposed under the aggravated identity theft charges. Although most of those sentenced in the aftermath of the Postville raid signed plea agreements and received five month prison sentences that have already ended, two individuals were sentenced to 12 months behind bars. It is unknown at this time how this ruling will impact those cases.

The court’s decision, however, should have no bearing on the numerous criminal and civil cases faced by employees and management at the Agriprocessors plant.

NY Times coverage.

[Hat Tip: The Other DK.]