The Anatomy of the Pennsylvania Stolen Valor Law: How they Got it Right

 

 

 

 

 

Sean Yetman in a 2014 Video that went Viral

 

In November of 2014, we received a video in our email from Ryan Burke. He told us he had confronted a fake Ranger in Pennsylvania at the Oxford Valley Mall.  Little did we know, at the time that this video would have a huge impact in not only furthering our mission but also stoking the fires of change under some lawmakers.

Once we viewed the video, it was obvious that the person in the video, later found out to be Sean Yetman, was no Ranger. Ryan, asked Yetman, a series of questions about his uniform and his service that any Soldier should have been able to answer. He then called out Yetman on his three CIB’s, Yetman claimed he got all of them for Iraq and Afghanistan, which is impossible. The video racked up more than 4 million views in four days, sparking national media attention and lawmakers started to notice as well. You can see the original story including the video here – Sean Yetman Busted for Stolen Valor.

A few days later, we received an email from a lawmaker in Pennsylvania, who was also serving in the National Guard. He asked if we would put support behind a Stolen Valor bill for their state. Of course, we agreed and provided testimony for the bill.

Here we are, almost 3 years later and the Governor signed the Pennsylvania Stolen Valor Law or House Bill 168 into law on June, 27th 2017. This bill sets a sort of precedent, because of the way it is written to be almost all-inclusive, but being very careful not to cross into abridgment of Free Speech. For those who may not know, here is a brief history of the Stolen Valor laws and where we are today.

 

The Federal Stolen Valor Act:

“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech. . . .” ~First Amendment 

The original Stolen Valor Act of 2005, signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 20, 2006, was a U.S. law that broadened the provisions of previous U.S. law addressing the unauthorized wear, manufacture, or sale of any military decorations and medals. The law made it a federal misdemeanor to falsely represent oneself as having received any U.S. military decoration or medal. If convicted, defendants might have been imprisoned for up to six months, unless the decoration lied about is the Medal of Honor, in which case imprisonment could have been up to one year. In United States v. Alvarez the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 28, 2012, that the Stolen Valor Act was an unconstitutional abridgment of the freedom of speech under the First Amendment, striking down the law in a 6 to 3 decision. Because the statute, as drafted, applied even in family, social, or other private contexts where lies will often cause little harm; it includes few other limits on its scope, and it creates too significant a burden on protected speech.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a plurality consisting of himself, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, wrote that ‘counter-speech’ was a sufficient solution to the problem: “It is a fair assumption that any true holders of the Medal who had heard of Alvarez’s false claims would have been fully vindicated by the community’s expression of outrage… Truth needs neither handcuffs nor a badge for its vindication.” In other words, Kennedy was saying that Counter-Speech or the Truth as posted online about Alvarez, and the communities outrage at his false claims was enough. This is basically what we do here, although sometimes they do end up in handcuffs.

 

Lawmakers went back to the drawing board, and a year later on January 15th, 2013 Representative Joe Heck introduced the Stolen Valor Act of 2013 or H.R. 258.  The bill was signed into law by President Barack Obama on June 3, 2013.

The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 amends the federal criminal code to rewrite provisions relating to fraudulent claims about military service to subject to a fine, imprisonment for not more than one year, or both for an individual who, with intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit, fraudulently holds himself or herself out to be a recipient of:

  • a Medal of Honor (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard)
  • a Distinguished Service Cross,
  • a Navy Cross,
  • an Air Force Cross,
  • a Silver Star,
  • a Purple Heart,
  • a Combat Infantryman’s Badge,
  • a Combat Action Badge,
  • a Combat Medical Badge,
  • a Combat Action Ribbon,
  • a Combat Action Medal, or
  • any replacement or duplicate medal for such medal as authorized by law.

So the new law was basically stripped of any provisions that could be considered free speech. You must claim one of the awards listed above AND intend to get something of tangible benefit. As far as we know only one person has been prosecuted under this act since its inception.

 

State’s Step Up to Fill the Gap:

Several states already had “Stolen Valor” type laws in the books, Pennsylvania was not one. After the video of Sean Yetman was uploaded to YouTube, lawmakers took notice. Representative Rick Saccone had tried unsuccessfully to get this law passed before, he said

“In the near future, I plan to introduce a bill that would make it a crime to fraudulently present oneself as a soldier or a veteran of any branch of the armed forces, or to be the recipient of a service medal or other military decoration when it is done with the intention of obtaining money, property, of other benefits. This is a reintroduction of HB 2050 from last session, which passed the House unanimously 197-0. Criminalized behavior would range from lying to receive veteran or health care benefits to fraudulently obtaining preference in a government contract or a job reserved for a veteran.

While the bill does not criminalize simply lying about one’s military service and accomplishments, I would nevertheless emphasize that this legislation is not simply about unfairly obtaining an economic benefit. This kind of fraud is despicable and, in particular, it is terribly disrespectful to our nation’s veterans.

Please join me in recognizing and protecting the valor and integrity of our military awards, along with the men and women who have earned them.”

 

Why does Pennsylvania law stand out?  Here is the bill in its entirety:

(a) A person is guilty of a summary offense if, without authority, he:

(1) wears or displays the uniform, decoration, insignia or other distinctive emblems of any branch of the armed forces of the United States or of any of the several states, or of any association, for the purpose of obtaining aid or profit, or while soliciting contributions or subscriptions; or

(2) wears an honorable discharge button issued or authorized by the United States.

(b) Misrepresentation of military service or honors.–A person commits a misdemeanor of the third degree if, with intent to obtain money, property or other benefits, the person fraudulently holds himself out to be any of the following:

(1) A member or veteran of any branch of the armed forces of the United States or of any of the several states.

(2) The recipient of any decoration or medal authorized by the Congress of the United States for the armed forces of the United States or any of the service medals or any decoration awarded to members of the armed forces of the United States or of any of the several states.

Section 2. This act shall take effect in 60 days.

 

The difference is this law makes it a crime if you claim to be a Veteran, claim ANY medals or decorations awarded to members of the armed forces and you intend to defraud. You don’t even have to commit fraud, you just have to intend to.

 

Governor Wolfe signs the Pennsylvania Stolen Valor Act into law, with members of the National Guard present.

 

 

In signing the PA Stolen Valor Act into law, Governor Tom Wolfe had this to say:

“This new law makes it a crime to impersonate a soldier, a veteran of the armed services, or a recipient of a service medal or decoration in order to gain access to benefits, resources, or job opportunities that we set aside specifically for those who have heroically served our country,” Governor Wolf said. “This legislation is incredibly important because Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest veteran population in the country and it is our duty to be certain that benefits for those veterans are available to those who have earned them.”

“An individual commits this crime if they intend to benefit by fraudulently presenting themselves as a member of the armed serves and/or the recipient of a military award,” Rep. Saccone said. “Criminalized behavior would range from lying to receive veteran or health care benefits to fraudulently obtaining preference in a government contract or a job reserved for a veteran.”

 

Pennsylvania is the sixth state since 2014 to pass or amend Stolen Valor laws. We have written and given personal testimony to these states lawmakers to help get these laws implemented.  We hope others will follow suit.

 

 

 

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