Background/Facts of the Case
Dubin v United States illustrates the ongoing debate about the scope of identity theft charges. As a primary focus of this case, the Supreme Court questioned whether aggravated identity theft occurs whenever a person refers to another individual’s name during a predicate offense, a violation that contributes to a broader crime.
In 2013, David Dubin was an employee of Psychological A.R.T.S., P.C., overseeing the administration of psychological health evaluations. PARTS filed claims with Medicaid for eligible patients in order to receive regular reimbursement for its services. However, there were limits to the frequency of reimbursement claims, including that each patient could only receive one evaluation each year. In this instance, PARTS evaluated a “Patient L.” twice within a 12-month period. Dubin told a psychological associate to delay the Medicaid claim until PARTS qualified for reimbursement. When the center filed the delayed claim, it included Patient L.’s name and Medicaid ID. Not only did PARTS claim that its evaluation was administered under eligible circumstances, it also overbilled Medicaid by exaggerating the circumstances of the psychological testing.
The United States charged Dubin with healthcare fraud and conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud. Most critically for this case, it also charged aggravated identity theft under 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1). A Western Texas district court convicted Dubin under all three charges. Dubin appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which upheld the district court’s decision. The Fifth Circuit Court also affirmed that any time a defendant uses another individual’s identity during a crime, even with the individual’s permission, then the defendant is guilty of identity theft. Dubin then appealed to the Supreme Court.
Dubin contested the lower courts’ holdings on the basis of the definition of aggravated identity theft: that a defendant “during and in relation to any [predicate offense, such as healthcare fraud], knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person.” Dubin specifically challenged the application of the word “uses” in his case, claiming that the word is context-specific and deserves a narrow interpretation. He contends that to charge aggravated identity theft, the use of an individual’s identity must be “instrumental” rather than “incidental” to the principal crime. In this instance, Dubin’s primary offense, healthcare fraud, would need to hinge on the individual’s identity for the charge to be valid. Furthermore, Dubin asserted that PARTS patients gave his company authority to file claims under their names and Medicaid IDs, granting him the “lawful authority” that would preclude an aggravated identity theft charge.
The Supreme Court sided with Dubin, citing two central principles that provided a framework for the decision. First, the Court agreed with Dubin’s argument that the phrase “in relation to” in the definition of aggravated identity theft refers to a use that “is at the crux of what makes the conduct criminal.” In Dubin’s crime, Patient L. ‘s identity would need to be central to the fraud rather than merely a factor attendant on billing in order for the charge to apply. This scenario precludes a charge of identity theft because Dubin’s fraud centered on billing rather than on the patient’s identity. Second, the Court closely analyzed the word “uses” when formulating its decision, concluding that they needed to interpret it in a context-specific manner. 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1) should be read as a traditional legal treatment of identity theft, where ID is central to the criminal intent of the action. This statute contextualizes “use” in a way that clarifies the centrality of the identity fraud to the crime, indicating that Dubin could only be guilty of aggravated identity theft if his other charges hinged on the use of an ID.
The Court took a narrow interpretation of aggravated identity theft and found in favor of Dubin because Dubin’s crime was not fundamentally centered on the misuse of Patient L. ‘s identity.
Dubin v United States limits the conditions under which an individual commits aggravated identity theft. As the Court reasons, this ruling is relevant in situations where purveyors of services overbill their consumers electronically. If the Supreme Court had heeded the district court’s decision, the broad definition of identity theft would result in those individuals also receiving aggravated identity theft charges, even when the consumer’s identity was never the central stake in their case.
Kara Bivens is from Waxhaw, NC, studying Political Science, Statistical Science, and Spanish.