WASHINGTON - A unanimous Supreme Court said yesterday that undocumented workers who use phony IDs could not be considered identity thieves without proof they knew they were stealing real people's Social Security and other numbers.

The ruling in Flores-Figueroa v. U.S. limits federal authorities' use of a 2004 law, intended to get tough on identity thieves, against immigrants who are picked up in workplace raids and found to be using false Social Security and immigrant registration numbers.

Advocates for immigrants had complained that federal authorities used the threat of prosecution on the identity-theft charge, which carries a two-year mandatory prison term, to win guilty pleas on lesser charges and acceptance of prompt deportation.

"These prosecutions have been taken off the table," said Nina Perales, Southwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The court, in an opinion written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, rejected the government's argument that prosecutors need show only that the identification numbers belong to someone else, regardless of whether the defendant knew it.

Breyer said intent was often easy to prove in what he called classic identity theft. "Where a defendant has used another person's information to get access to that person's bank account, the government can prove knowledge with little difficulty," he said.

But immigrants lacking proper documentation need identity documents and often buy them from forgers, never knowing whether they belong to anyone.

Such was the case with the undocumented worker on the winning side yesterday.

Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican employed at a steel plant in East Moline, Ill., traveled to Chicago and bought numbers from someone who trades in counterfeit IDs. Unlike earlier fictitious numbers he had used, these numbers belonged to real people.

Flores-Figueroa had worked at the plant under a false name for six years. His decision to use his real name and exchange one set of phony numbers for another aroused his employer's suspicions. He was arrested in 2006 and convicted on false-document and identity-theft charges.

He appealed his conviction as an identity thief, but the St. Louis-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the conviction. With appeals courts divided on the issue, the Supreme Court stepped in.

The Bush administration used the identity-theft law hundreds of times last year. After a raid on a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, authorities charged 270 undocumented workers with identity theft, without any indication they knew that their counterfeit Social Security and other ID numbers belonged to actual people. All accepted plea deals in which they also agreed not to contest deportation.

But illustrating the arbitrary nature of the law - which several justices commented on during arguments in February - a further 100 workers arrested in the same raid faced less serious charges because their identification numbers were made up.

The Obama administration has shifted the main focus of immigration raids to employers.

Justices: Rethink Janet Jackson Ruling

The Supreme Court ordered the Philadelphia-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit yesterday to reexamine its ruling in favor of CBS Corp. in a legal fight over entertainer Janet Jackson's 2004 "wardrobe malfunction."

The justices directed the Third Circuit court to consider reinstating the $550,000 fine imposed by the Federal Communications Commission on CBS over Jackson's breast-baring at the 2004 Super Bowl.

The order follows the justices' ruling last week that narrowly upheld the FCC's policy threatening fines against even one-time uses of curse words on live television.

CBS expressed confidence the appeals court would again find the network did not and could not have anticipated the incident.

Last July, the Third Circuit court threw out the fine against CBS, saying the FCC had strayed from its long-held approach of applying identical standards to words and images when reviewing complaints of indecency.

- Associated Press

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Read the justices' ruling in the undocumented-

worker case via http://go.philly.com/IDcaseEndText