May 04, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Flores-Figueroa v. United States

On May 4, the Supreme Court decided Flores-Figueroa v. United States, No. 08-108.

A federal identity-theft statute imposes a mandatory two-year prison term on a person who, in connection with the commission of certain other crimes, "knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person." 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1) (emphasis added).

The defendant here, who was in the United States illegally, gave his employer counterfeit documents that contained his own name but other people's identifying numbers. He was charged with immigration violations and identity theft, and he moved to dismiss the latter charge, arguing that the government could not prove that he knew the identifying numbers on his documents were actually assigned to other people, rather than being, for example, a random fake number that is assigned to nobody. The district court rejected this argument, holding that the word "knowingly" in § 1028A(a)(1) does not modify the words "of another person," and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed. It held that, "as a matter of ordinary English grammar" and given the structure of § 1028A9a)(1), the word "knowingly" must be understood as applying to all of the subsequently listed elements of the crime. The Court noted several other cases in which it had interpreted similarly worded statutes as requiring proof of the defendant's knowledge of all of the elements, not just some of them

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, and Ginsburg joined. Justice Scalia (joined by Justice Thomas) and Justice Alito each filed an opinion concurring in the judgment but setting out specific points of disagreement with the majority's reasoning.

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