Legally Speaking: Stolen Valor and Stolen Justice

John G. Browning Aug. 11, 2010, 9:22am

I've previously written about the Stolen Valor Act, a federal law passed in 2006 that makes it a crime for individuals to falsely claim that they had been awarded military decorations and medals.

The act carries a punishment ranging from fines to up to a year in prison. The law came in response to a growing number of cases around the country in which sham veterans were falsely claiming "war hero" status in order to get everything from money and veterans' benefits to favorable car loans and free meals.

Since the law's passage, military fakers have been prosecuted nationwide. Among the phony war heroes I wrote about was a judge who actually claimed to have won not just one, but two Congressional Medals of Honor before ultimately being exposed as a liar.

Recently, however, the Stolen Valor Act has come under attack by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who contend that the law criminalizes speech and therefore violates the First Amendment.

In federal court in California, Xavier Alvarez contested his prosecution under the Stolen Valor Act on constitutional grounds, but his argument was rejected by the judge (an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is pending).

In Denver, Colo., though, the ACLU and military poser Rick Strandlof found a far more receptive audience in U.S. District Judge Robert E. Blackburn.

A couple of weeks ago, the 32-year-old Strandlof stood accused of posing as "Rick Duncan," a wounded Marine captain who served three tours in the Iraq war and survived the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon and received the Purple Heart and a Silver Star. He used that persona to found the Colorado Veterans Alliance, solicit money, and campaign against the war, usually backing Democratic candidates.

Judge Blackburn dismissed the case against Strandlof on free speech grounds, calling it "facially unconstitutional" and saying the government had no compelling reason for restricting Strandlof's false statements.

Responding to the government's argument that lying about having military medals diminished their meaning, Judge Blackburn wrote, "To suggest that the battlefield heroism of our servicemen and women is motivated in any way, let alone in a compelling way, by considerations of whether a medal may be awarded simply defies my comprehension."

The ACLU applauded the decision.

Denver ACLU attorney Chris Beall said, "The First Amendment protects speech we don't like. We don't need the First Amendment for speech people like. The government cannot criminalize a statement simply because it is false, no matter how important the statement is."

Meanwhile, Congressman John Salazar (the Colorado Democrat who introduced the legislation), wrote "This is an issue of fraud, plain and simple. The individuals who violate this law are those who knowingly portray themselves as pillars of the community for personal and monetary gain. The Stolen Valor Act has been upheld by other courts and I am confident this decision will be overturned on appeal."

Just who was this fake war hero with a supposed First Amendment right to pull the wool over everyone's eyes? Rick Strandlof first popped up on the criminal justice radar in 1997 under the alias "Richard Glenn Pierson."

He did a five-year jail stretch in Montana on forgery and bad check charges. Behind bars, he didn't exactly redeem himself to the jail administrators by filing lawsuits against the facility for such things as putting artificial sweeteners in his fruit drink and for denying him his "constitutional right" to hardcore pornography.

The convicted forger evidently still wanted to be someone else, though, and his use of jail computers and law books to pass himself off as a lawyer cost him his job in the prison library.

Out of prison, Strandlof moved to the Reno-Lake Tahoe area in 2005.
There he raised funds for his "Reno-Lake Tahoe Grand Prix Foundation," promising to bring open wheel racing to the streets of Reno while financially supporting underprivileged kids.

By the time Strandlof's phone was disconnected and the race website was taken down, local donors realized they'd been had.

Strandlof's disappearance coincided with a transition into politics. He had become active in the Reno chapter of an anti-Bush organization, World Can't Wait, and drove local voters to the polls.

As it turns out, he used a stolen rental car to do so, and Strandlof spent nine months in county jail for possession of a stolen vehicle.

Out of jail, Strandlof re-surfaced in Colorado in 2007 as an anti-war activist and advocate for veterans' rights. He became "Rick Duncan," and started the Colorado Veterans Alliance.

At first, local veterans – including ones serving on the organization's board – were taken in by Duncan's energy, the fact that he peppered his stories with convincing details about life in Iraq's Forward Operating Bases (FOBS), and little touches like the "Got DD214?" bumper sticker on his car (an inside joke for vets, the DD214 is the official form issued upon a soldier's release from active duty service).

He passionately spoke out on behalf of Democratic candidates leading up to the 2008 elections, and for the plight of homeless veterans.

He explained away his stuttering and sometimes erratic behavior as residual effects from the trauma of being wounded by an improvised explosive device during his second tour in Iraq.

But being just another grunt wounded in the service of his country apparently wasn't enough for Strandlof. As "Duncan," the high school dropout became an Annapolis graduate and Marine captain.

After hearing veteran Hal Bidlack speak of his experience being at the Pentagon on 9/11, Strandlof too would recount tales of being there, and in fact parroted some of the legitimate veteran's own remarks.

But when Strandlof misrepresented himself as working for Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, word got back to Sen. Udall's office and they met with Dan Warvi, a board member of Colorado Veterans Alliance.

Warvi started checking into the military service record of "Rick Duncan," and learned from Annapolis that the last naval officer with that name had graduated in 1948 – roughly 30 years before Strandlof was born.

Warvi found out that Colorado Veterans Alliance's name with the Colorado secretary of state's office was registered to someone he'd never met – someone named Rick Strandlof.

As board members started digging into Strandlof's background, they found out about the Grand Prix fiasco as well as the court documents showing that during the same time period that he was supposedly in Iraq, Strandlof was in fact sitting in a jail cell in Nevada.

The house of cards had come tumbling down.

What Strandlof did was essentially counterfeiting. Just as a counterfeiter turns paper into money he didn't actually earn and thus devalues legitimate currency that people actually worked for, Strandlof diluted the value of honors others earned.

If phony war heroes are permitted to spin their yarns with impunity, awards for true acts of valor will seem as commonplace as a Girl Scout merit badge.

And when fakes like Strandlof are exposed, the public cannot help but be that much more suspicious when a bona fide war hero does come along.

There is a reason why all of the Congressional Medals of Honor bestowed since the war on terrorism began have been presented posthumously: earning it often demands the ultimate sacrifice.

We should treat those who earn distinctions like this with the respect they deserve, and punishing those who buy a medal on eBay and lie about being war heroes is one way of showing that respect.

I disagree with Judge Blackburn. He swore an oath to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution and the laws of the United States, much like I did.

And even though I know it's a federal crime to impersonate an Article III federal judge (just see 18 U.S.C. § 912), I can't help getting a twinkle in my eye when I think of the advice from one conservative commentator:

"[T]he next time that Judge Blackburn walks into his courtroom and the bailiff says 'All rise,' everyone in the courtroom should stay seated. In fact, they should all show up at the courthouse wearing long black robes. All the attorneys, all the witnesses, and all the spectators should request to be addressed as "your honor" throughout the session . . . When His Honor complains, they should all just say that they are well within their constitutional rights. There's no compelling interest involved . . . It's protected speech."

After all, it's only honor.

More News