Friday, March 09, 2012

Strict Meaning of "Father" Leads to False Statement Convictions

US v. Sarwari: Sarwari was born in Afghanistan, was given asylum in the United States, and became a citizen in 1998. In 1992 he married and "gave his last name to [his wife] and her four children." She and the children came to the United States in 1999. In 2004, Sarwari prepared passport applications for three of the children, in which he listed himself as their "father." Although Sarwari had birth certificates from the Afghan embassy naming him as the children's' "father," he was not their biological father nor had he legally adopted them. As a result, he was charged with three counts of making a false statement on a passport application. He was convicted on all three counts and sentenced to concurrent terms of 12 months and a day on each.

On appeal, Sarwari raised several challenges to his convictions, all of which the Fourth Circuit turned away. First, it rejected Sarwari's argument that his answers on the forms were "literally true," concluding that in cases such as this one where the terms at issue are ambiguous and subject to different meanings, that defense is not available. Second, it rejected the argument that the term "father" as used on the forms is so ambiguous as to preclude anyone making a false statement. In the formal context of the passport applications, "father" could not be read to include "stepfather." Third, the court rejected Sarwari's argument that the jury should have been instructed about the lack of a statutory definition of "father." Finally, it found that the evidence was sufficient to support the convictions.

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