Pawtucket Times

State Senate passes bill to make ‘stolen valor’ a crime

- By STELLA LORENCE slorence@woonsocket­call.com

PROVIDENCE – Sen. Roger Picard’s (D-Woonsocket) bill to criminaliz­e falsely representi­ng military service unanimousl­y passed the Senate on Thursday.

The “stolen valor” bill makes it a misdemeano­r crime for a person to fraudulent­ly represent themselves as an active or veteran member of the military in order to obtain money or other benefits.

“I hope it never has to be used,” Picard told The Times. “I hope no one every crosses that line, but if they do – and this bill becomes law – there will be a remedy for it.”

Under the Senate’s bill, a violator

faces up to a year in prison or a $1,000 fine, and fines collected as a result of the bill would be allocated to the Rhode Island military family relief fund.

Picard said he introduced the bill after he was approached by a group of veterans, some of whom he recognized as his constituen­ts from Woonsocket and Cumberland.

The current federal law prohibitin­g falsely representi­ng military service to obtain benefits was signed in 2013 by former President Barack Obama. A 2005 version of the law was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2012 on the grounds that it was too broad and violated the First Amendment right to free speech. Congress then amended the law, narrowing the scope to apply only to those who lie about their military service and awards “with intent to obtain money, property or other tangible benefit.”

Picard said the veterans who approached him knew about the federal law and wanted to know if Rhode Island had a state version of it. Their inquiry led him to research the issue and eventually draft and introduce the bill passed by the Senate.

As part of that research, he said he looked at the federal law and other state laws to make sure the language did not impinge on the freedom of speech. Three other New England states have passed stolen valor laws, with the exception of Vermont and New Hampshire.

“You’re walking a fine line here between First Amendment rights and the ability of someone to cross that line to obtain benefits,” Picard said.

The federal Stolen Valor Act was at the heart of a criminal case out of Rhode Island brought before the federal District Court in March.

Sarah Cavanaugh, 31, of Warwick, fraudulent­ly claimed to be a wounded Marine Corps veteran and recipient of a Purple Heart and several other awards in order to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in veteran benefits and charitable donations, alleges a federal affidavit.

“I think [the Cavanaugh case] was the motivation for the people who spoke to me,” Picard said of the veterans who approached him.

The Senate committee on special legislatio­n and veteran’s affairs altered the bill slightly before passage. Concerned it may be too broad, they removed the phrase “tangible benefits,” leaving only “money and property” specified as the benefits violators seek to obtain.

“The committee did a nice job hearing the bill,” Picard said. “If a grandchild wears a grandfathe­r or grandmothe­r’s memorabili­a, that’s now the person we’re trying to get.”

The House passed a similar version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, D-Westerly, last week.

 ?? ?? Sarah Cavanaugh, of Warwick, was accused earlier this year of falsely claiming that she served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Sarah Cavanaugh, of Warwick, was accused earlier this year of falsely claiming that she served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

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