A former employee of the state Department of Motor Vehicles admitted in a Charleston federal courtroom Thursday to producing at least 37 fraudulent driver's licenses that ended up in the hands of illegal immigrants.
Teresa Decker, 39, of Bluffton, pleaded guilty to one count of fraud in connection with identification information. She initially was charged with knowingly giving the licenses to the illegal immigrants, but the U.S. Attorney's Office will ask the court to dismiss that charge.
Decker produced the licenses based on questionable forms of identification while working at the Bluffton DMV between January and April 2003.
Her actions violated both state and federal law. Decker was charged in the state 14th Circuit Court four years ago, but the case was kicked up to the federal level in July, a move that disappointed her attorney because federal sentences can be more stringent.
Defense lawyer Sam Bauer said at least two other cases involving former state DMV employees who were convicted of similar offenses stayed in state courts, where the defendants received probation.
"We feel similar offenders should be dealt with in a similar way," he said.
Bauer said Decker's life has been "on hold" while prosecutors decided how to pursue the case.
There is no plea deal in place. It will likely be several months until she is sentenced. Decker, who remains free on bond, could receive up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The prosecutor, assistant U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart, said the maximum sentence would not fit the circumstances surrounding Decker's crime.
"Keep in mind, she's not going to get that," he said.
In the coming months, the court's probation department will prepare an extensive pre-sentencing report detailing Decker's background, her level of cooperation with investigators and the facts of the case. It will include a sentencing recommendation, which the judge is free to deviate from.
"Her life is now in the hands of a federal court judge," said Bauer. "We're only hoping that the judge will be fair in sentencing."