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Punishing Stolen Valor: Criminal Penalties For False Claims of Honor

Memorial Day is a federal holiday intended to honor and remember those people who died while serving in the United States military. These individuals have paid the ultimate price to preserve the freedom and liberty that we enjoy in the United States. The highest military decoration in the United States is the Medal of Honor, granted to those U.S. military servicepeople who have distinguished themselves by acts of valor. More often than not, the Medal of Honor is awarded posthumously to those that gave their life. President Bush noted during a Medal of Honor ceremony in 2007 that more than half of Medal of Honor recipients since World War II have died earning it.

To protect the honor of those who have earned military decorations and medals, Congress has proscribed military penalties for the unauthorized purchase, sale, exchange or use of these awards, to wit:

  • Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 704(a), "[w]hoever knowingly purchases, attempts to purchase, solicits for purchase, mails, ships, imports, exports, produces blank certificates of receipt for, manufactures, sells, attempts to sell, advertises for sale, trades, barters, or exchanges for anything of value any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States, or any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces, or the ribbon, button, or rosette of any such badge, decoration or medal, or any colorable imitation thereof, except when authorized under regulations made pursuant to law, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.
  • Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 704(c)(1), if the decoration or medal involved above is the Medal of Honor, or any replacement or duplicate of such medal, then the maximum penalty is INCREASED from six months to one-year imprisonment.
  • Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 704(d), if the decoration involved is a distinguished-service cross, a Navy cross, an Air Force cross, a silver star, a Purple Heart, a combat badge (Combat Infantryman's Badge, Combat Action Badge, Combat Medical Badge, Combat Action Ribbon, or Combat Action Medal) or any replacement or duplicate of such medal, then the maximum penalty is INCREASED from six months to one-year imprisonment.

In 2006, President Bush signed the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 into law, making it a federal criminal offense for a person to deliberately state falsely that he or she had been awarded a military decoration, service medal or badge with an enhanced penalty if the award involves the Medal of Honor. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United State v. Alvarez, 567 U.S. 709 (2012) that the Stolen Valor Act was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment's free speech protections and that the goal could have been achieved in a less restrictive way. As a result, Congress enacted and President Obama signed into law the Stolen Valor Act of 2013 to provide a protection that passes constitutional muster, to wit:

  • Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 704(b), "[w]hoever, with intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit, fraudulently holds oneself out to be a recipient of a decoration or medal described in subsection (c)(2) or (d) shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than one year, or both." (Emphasis Added).
  • The types of decorations or medal affected by the Stolen Valor Act of 2013 are the Medal of Honor, a distinguished-service cross, a Navy cross, an Air Force cross, a silver star, a Purple Heart, a combat badge (Combat Infantryman's Badge, Combat Action Badge, Combat Medical Badge, Combat Action Ribbon, or Combat Action Medal) or any replacement or duplicate of such medal.

It is no longer a criminal act to simply hold out to the world that you falsely earned a military medal (e.g. you located your grandfather's Medal of Honor in the attic and decided to wear it to a dinner party claiming that you earned it during Operation Iraqi Freedom). Although such acts are in poor taste, they are nevertheless protected by free speech laws. However, you will trigger federal criminal penalties if you use the false Medal of Honor or any other applicable military decoration to get a monetary or tangible benefit, for example:

  • Falsely claiming receipt of applicable military medals in an attempt to claim a specific benefit granted under federal law (e.g. Medal of Honor recipients are entitled to supplemental military pension and retired pay, eligibility for burial at Arlington National Cemetery, eligibility of children to attend U.S. service academies, and invitations to all future presidential inaugurations and inaugural balls).
  • Falsely claiming receipt of applicable military medals and decorations at shopping centers or restaurants with the intent of receiving military discounts on goods and services. The law criminalizes the "intent to obtain", not whether you actually obtained it or not.
  • Falsely claiming receipt of applicable military medals and decorations on a job application or at a job interview for the purpose of obtaining employment.

Several states have their own versions of stolen valor criminal statutes, some having penalties more severe than the federal version. Michigan does not yet have a separate stolen valor criminal penalty despite attempts to introduce such measures in the state legislature. This does not mean that such conduct could not be prosecuted under state laws criminalizing fraud, misrepresentation or perjury, if applicable.

In reality, the public shaming received in a stolen valor matter is far worse than any criminal penalty imposed. Several individuals and organizations watch for instances of stolen valor and frequently report them on social media. Videos on YouTube of veterans calling out people who falsely claim military service or decoration receive millions of views. Even if never prosecuted, a public accusation of stolen valor will cause lifelong reputation damage that can affect employment, rental or economic opportunities for years to come. The receipt of military honors is completely verifiable with the U.S. military so it is unlikely that the lie can stand forever. More importantly, claims of stolen valor fully dishonor those veterans and decedents who paid the price to earn those military distinctions. The short-term benefit that might come with a false claim of military honor do not offset the long-term shame, humiliation and criminal consequences of discovery.

Have a happy and safe Memorial Day!

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