ABA: U.S. Supreme Court Update – May 4, 2009

A Service from the ABA Criminal Justice Section, http://www.abanet.org/crimjust

Flores-Figueroa v. United States (No. 08-108)

Decided: May 4, 2009

Petitioner Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican citizen, gave his employer counterfeit Social Security and alien registration cards containing his name but other people’s identification numbers, he was arrested and charged with two immigration offenses and aggravated identity theft. Flores moved for acquittal on the latter charge, claiming that the Government could not prove that he knew that the documents’ numbers were assigned to other people.

The District Court agreed with the Government that the word “knowingly” in sec.1028A(a)(1) does not modify the statute’s last three words, “of another person,” and, after trial, found Flores guilty on all counts. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The USSC held that Section sec.1028(a)(1) requires the Government to show that the defendant knew that the means of identification at issue belonged to another person. As a matter of ordinary English grammar, “knowingly” is naturally read as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime. Where a transitive verb has an object, listeners in most contexts assume that an adverb (such as “knowingly”) that modifies the verb tells the listener how the subject performed the entire action, including the object. The Government does not provide a single example of a sentence that, when used in typical fashion, would lead the hearer to a contrary understanding. And courts ordinarily interpret criminal statutes consistently with the ordinary English usage.

Finally, the Government’s arguments based on the statute’s purpose and on the practical problems of enforcing it are not sufficient to overcome the ordinary meaning, in English or through ordinary interpretive practice, of Congress’ words. Pp. 4-11.

Reversed and remanded.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Thomas, J., joined. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

Available at: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/08-108.ZS.html

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