Despite Supreme Court ruling, lies about military medals still punishable
TAMPA, Fla. — Although the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Stolen Valor Act, authorities still have ways to prosecute many of the people who pretend to have been awarded military honors.
Take the case of Danny Russell Crane, a 31-year-old Riverview man who authorities say lied about receiving a Distinguished Flying Cross, two Purple Hearts and an Air Medal. In reality, Crane was discharged from the Army after serving less than three months.
"Liar, thief and disgrace," said Roger Dunn, past commander of American Legion Post 148 in Riverview, speaking of Crane, who first showed up at the post three years ago.
"He is a disgrace to the veterans. He is a disgrace to anybody who has ever served and especially to those who died for this country. He is a disgrace to them all," Dunn said.
But under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June, Crane's lies, by themselves, are protected by the First Amendment.
"The nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace," the court wrote.
Yet lying to the federal government in an official matter is a crime, as is seeking undeserved government benefits.
A federal indictment handed up recently charges Crane with doing both. The indictment was handed up weeks after the Supreme Court ruled the Stolen Valor Act was unconstitutional.
Now Crane is in the Pinellas County Jail, charged with stealing medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and making false statements on his application for disability benefits. Both charges carry more serious penalties — 10 and five years in prison — than the Stolen Valor Act, which could land a person in prison for a year, at most.
Crane was a blowhard whose story didn't add up, Dunn said.
"I had a funny feeling he was lying the first time I met him," Dunn said. "I had no use for him bragging about his exploits, his combat. He said he had been in Panama and got a bronze star in Panama. … He said he saved a helicopter pilot out of a burning helicopter in Panama. I figured out when Panama was and how old he was, and I said that was the bravest 9-year-old I ever met in my life."
Other Stolen Valor defendants have faced charges of impersonating an officer or employee of the United States or wearing military medals or decorations without authorization.
Impersonating a federal officer carries more serious penalties than Stolen Valor, and wearing unauthorized military decorations carries a penalty of as much as a year behind bars.
"Some of our Stolen Valor cases will not be reversed on appeal now because some of the prosecutors had also charged other charges," said U.S. Attorney Robert E. O'Neill. "If the only charge was the Stolen Valor, they will be thrown out."
The court held that merely lying about military service and awards is protected speech. But the opinion does not nullify laws that criminalize lying for monetary gain.
"According to the Supreme Court decision, if I stand on a street corner during the RNC and say I won the Congressional Medal of Honor, that's not actionable," O'Neill said. "The First Amendment protects it, according to the United States Supreme Court. If I say, 'Hey, I'm a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, give me this,' then we tie it to fraud."
Stolen Valor prosecutions are relatively rare in the Middle District of Florida, the federal court district that stretches from Naples to Georgia and includes Tampa.
In the past five years, five cases have been brought in a district that covers more than 10 million people, according to O'Neill's office. In every instance, the defendants faced charges beyond Stolen Valor.
Three of the cases were out of Jacksonville. The other two were brought in Tampa:
Angel Ocasio-Reyes, who never served in the military but wanted to join the American Legion, bought a beribboned Marine master gunnery sergeant's uniform at a military surplus store in New York and paid a friend $25 for a DD Form 214, an official military discharge document, showing he'd served in the Navy. He pleaded guilty in 2010 to wearing military medals and decorations without authorization, using and possessing forged military discharge papers and Stolen Valor. He was sentenced to three years' probation.
Gary Amster, a Vietnam War veteran who never saw combat, drove in Florida for two years with a license plate that said he had been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award. But Amster never received the medal. He also lied to the Department of Veterans Affairs about the honor in his benefits application. A federal jury in 2010 convicted Amster of three charges: a felony count of lying to a federal agency about having the medal and two counts under Stolen Valor for falsely representing that he had won the medal. He was sentenced to five years of probation. He appealed his conviction, and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in July cited the U.S. Supreme Court ruling to overturn his Stolen Valor convictions while leaving the other part intact.
Fred Campbell, who lives in New Castle, Tenn., works with other veterans to expose the pretenders.
"That's what we do with our Internet website," Campbell said. "Stolen Valor ain't going to cover it, so we're going to cover it with our websites": www.stolenvalor.com
"We're going to shame these people and say, 'Look, you may think you're getting away with it, but you're not. People are going to say what you are, and we'll see how long you are going to get away with it.'"
Crane, coincidentally, added Campbell as a Facebook friend in June, Campbell said.
To Campbell, the stories didn't add up.
Campbell contacted the VA inspector general, and within weeks, Crane was indicted.
"There's men and women who have died for that uniform, who raised the right hand, who have done the right thing, and then you get these guys who never did one pushup, one situp, … never held a rifle, and yet they're putting on a uniform and saying they did it," Campbell said.
Dunn found it especially galling that Crane managed to get veterans benefits while real veterans frequently have to fight the government to get what they earned. "There's a lot of veterans around here that would love to get their hands on him."