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A Supreme Court ruling last week on identity theft will not affect the Beaufort County Sheriff's Offices's ongoing investigation into the use of forged employment documents at county businesses, Sheriff P.J. Tanner said.
The high court unanimously ruled that people could only be charged with identity theft if they knowingly used another actual person's Social Security number.
Last year, the Bush administration announced round-ups of workers at several sites. Most of them were charged with possessing false documents and "aggravated identity theft." This novel use of the law prompted the Supreme Court to take up the issue.
In Beaufort County, a countywide audit of businesses turned up about 194 employees at 22 businesses that may have used falsified or stolen identities to get jobs. Tanner said the Sheriff's Office never intended to charge them with anything but misdemeanor forgery, unless an investigation revealed further charges would be appropriate.
"I think the Supreme Court's decision was correct," Tanner said. "Most of the Social Security numbers that have been found to be used by those that are foreign-born illegals to obtain work ... are just false. They're not connected to anyone."
The sheriff's investigation of 11 businesses netted five arrests in the past two months. All the suspects were charged with forgery, punishable under state law by up to three years in prison.
The Beaufort County Council mandated the audits of businesses in late 2006 over concerns about illegal workers.
The county paid Advance Point Global about $175,000 last year to audit more than 470 businesses. The audits included reviews of companies' payroll lists and federally required immigrationdocuments, known as I-9 forms, for each employee.
Company president Andy Patrick told the County Council last month his company found about 1,000 questionable I-9 forms.
"Just the mere fact of using a (Social Security number), if you don't know it to be valid or not, is not enough on its face to charge someone on identity theft," Tanner said.