BUFFALO, N.Y. – New legislation in Erie County called the “Theft of Valor” law aims to crack down on and criminally prosecute people who impersonate veterans.
County Legislator Edward Rath proposed the Theft of Valor law and the proposal passed unanimously on Thursday. The legislature’s hope is that it will be signed by county executive Mark Poloncarz in time for Veterans Day, which is next Saturday, Nov. 11.
Veteran impersonation is a nationwide issue, and in response, the federal Stolen Valor Act was signed into law under President Barack Obama in 2013. It did not include a mechanism to enforce the law, however, so over time, some states and municipalities have been writing their own versions of the law to try and enforce it.
Erie County will become the second county in New York State after Suffolk County to crack down on veteran impersonation.
Rath said different veterans groups from across Erie County have approached lawmakers with the issue. A recent problem, he said, was that people going to door to door claiming to collect money for Wounded Warriors.
Rath says the worst story he's heard happened at a 9/11 ceremony a few years ago.
"A marine went up to another individual who was wearing a Naval officer's outfit, but he had the wrong buttons or badges on his lapel that didn't indicate the U.S. Navy, and so he said, who are you and what are you doing here? And it turned out the guy was a fraud,” Rath said.
At the time, police couldn’t do anything. When the Theft of Valor law goes into effect, they can.
In Erie County, police will be able to fine a person impersonating a veteran $250 on the first offense, $500 on the second offense, and $1,000 on the third offense and up to one year in jail.
But how do you prove someone is lying about their service? Rath says Veterans Affairs will work the County Clerk's office to search for discharge papers.
"Those are on file with the Clerk's office, and if we find out that this person was not a veteran and not honorably discharged, then the wheels of justice will start to turn,” Rath said.
Regarding why someone would impersonate a veteran, Rath theorized it could be for financial gain from some the discounts veterans are afforded or for personal recognition.
The Theft of Valor law would take effect approximately 60 days after it’s signed.