Stolen valor is a term related to fraudulently posing as an active duty military service member or as a veteran of the Armed Forces. Individuals who lie about their military service are said to have stolen valor.
It’s not the most honorable thing to do, but is it a crime?
Some people are so unaware of what military medals represent that they might truly mean no harm. While others are certainly using these false accolades to earn money and prestige for their business or organization.
So, should everyone be punished no matter why they ended up “stealing valor”?
The answer is tricky and it took a few tries to get the law to where it is now. Here, we’ll explain the two major provisions to the Stolen Valor Act and a couple of the court cases that help us understand how stolen valor is treated as a crime.
Stolen Valor is a Crime Under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005
Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 broadened the US law that provisioned the previous law that addressed any unauthorized wear, manufacture, or sale of any military decorations and medals.
Doing so was a misdemeanor and false representation of someone who had received military decorations or medals when they had not. Those convicted under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 could do jail time of anywhere between six months to a year.
To strengthen these provisions and broaden the scope of the Act, the specifics of the law included:
- Granting more authority to federal law enforcement officers
- Allowing the law to cover false claims whereas, under the original law, an overt act needed to be committed for conviction
- Covering the mailing and shipping of medals and other military paraphernalia
- Protecting the reputation and meaning of heroic military medals
The law was challenged in two major court decisions.
The first was in United States v. Strandlof that started in the US District Court in Denver, Colorado. Rick Strandlof was the founder of Colorado Veterans Alliance and was accused of posing as Marine Captain “Rick Duncan” to raise funds for his organization.
In 2010, Strandlof challenged the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 as being unconstitutional and infringing on his freedom of speech. His attorney’s opinion was that the law was too vague.
The federal judge in Denver initially ruled in favor of Strandlof with the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 said to be “facially unconstitutional”. Since Strandlof lied about being an Iraq War veteran, he was charged with five misdemeanors related to the Stolen Valor Act but no criminal charges were filed after the decision was made.
The US Justice Department decided to file for an appeal and the case was taken to the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in 2012 where the district court was overruled and Strandlof’s charges were reinstated.
Two judges out of the three on the Appeals Court panel asserted that false statements are not protected as free speech.
The second major court case that affected the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 was United States v. Alvarez.
At first, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the federal government and a majority of judges refused to rehear the case. An argument made by Judge Alex Kozinski issued a long concurrence asserting that:
The First Amendment covers most varieties of lying and misrepresentation and the traditional view holds that only a certain variety of speech are exempt from the standard constitutional scrutiny such as fraud, fighting words, defamation, incitement, and speech attendant to the commission of a crime.
Eventually, in 2011, the US Supreme Court agreed to rehear the case and in 2012 deemed the law to be unconstitutional in a 6 to 3 decision as it abridged freedom of speech under the First Amendment.
In short, the Supreme Court ruling asserts the one cannot be arrested for wearing unearned military awards if they did so without criminal intent as that would be infringing on their constitutional right to freedom of speech.
Is Stolen Valor a Crime in the US? – Stolen Valor Act of 2013
After the decision was made in United States v. Alvarez, the Stolen Valor Act was ratified in 2013 and passed by the 113th United States Congress. It was amended as a crime for someone to fraudulently claim having received military valor intending to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefits from doing so.
The 2013 Stolen Valor Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama, added provisions that relate to fraudulent claims regarding military service in which someone falsely claims to be a recipient of:
- Medal of Honor
- Distinguished Service Cross
- Navy Cross
- Air Force Cross
- Silver Star
- Bronze Star
- Purple Heart
- Combat Action Ribbon
- Combat Infantryman’s Badge
- Combat Action Badge
- Combat Medical Badge
- Combat Action Medal
- Any replacement or duplicate medal for such medal as authorized by law
So, if someone claims to have one of these awards or badges of honor for personal gain, they can be charged with a crime under the Stolen Valor Act of 2013.
Is Stolen Valor a Felony Crime?
So, is stolen valor a felony crime? The answer is no, but there are potential consequences. It’s considered more of misdemeanor-level crimes versus a felony. It is certainly a crime though, but only if you had criminal intent for personal gain.
Someone committing a stolen valor crime to receive money, property, or other tangible benefits may be subject to a fine, imprisonment for no longer than a year, or both.