RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: L & M Steel Services
DOCKET NO.: 08-108
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
CITATION: 556 US (2009)
GRANTED: Oct 20, 2008
ARGUED: Feb 25, 2009
DECIDED: May 04, 2009
Kevin K. Russell - argued the cause for the petitioner
Toby J. Heytens - argued the cause for the respondent
Facts of the case
Ignacio Flores-Figueroa was convicted on two counts of aggravated identity theft in a federal district court and sentenced to 75 months imprisonment. On appeal, he argued that his conviction was in error because the government did not prove he knew the identification he possessed belonged to another person. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit rejected this argument and affirmed the trial court's decision. It held the government need not prove Mr. Flores-Figueroa knew the identification he possessed belonged to another person.
In order to prove aggravated identity theft, does the government need to prove the defendant knew the identification he possessed belonged to another person?
Media for Flores-Figueroa v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 25, 2009 in Flores-Figueroa v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 04, 2009 in Flores-Figueroa v. United States
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
Justice Breyer has the opinion this morning in case 08-108, Flores-Figueroa versus United States.
Stephen G. Breyer:
A federal statute entitled aggravated identity theft makes it a crime to -- the language support in here, “knowingly transfer, posses, or use without lawful authority a means of identification of another person" during or in relation to some other crime and it increases the penalty imposed upon a person who for example uses fraudulent documents in that particular way.
The petitioner, Ignacio Flores-Figueroa gave his employer a false Social Security card and other counterfeit documents that contained his name, but an identification number that belong to another person.
The question before us is whether the statute requires the Government to prove that Flores-Figueroa knew that the numbers belong to another person.
And we conclude that it does. To understand why that so, it's necessary to look at the statute, it starts with the word, "knowingly" followed by verb such as "transfer" followed by an object, namely a means of identification of another person.
In most context, listeners take the use of a simple English sentence constructed in this way to mean that knowingly modifies a verb's object.
If I tell you, John knowingly ate a BLT sandwich, we assume that John knew that what he ate, namely a sandwich contained bacons, lettuce, and tomato.
If I tell you only -- without using the word "knowingly", John sent the bank draft to the capital of Honduras.
You think John may or may not know the name of that capital city.
But if I tell you John knowingly did so, it is more likely that I'm telling you that John also knows the name of the capital of Honduras which happens to be Tegucigalpa which not too many people know.
Now, what is true in life is true in law.
Ordinarily, we read the word, "knowingly" in a criminal statute as modifying the object that follows.
At least in the absence of special circumstances and there are no special circumstances here.
To the contrary, the statute imposes its extra punishment not upon counterfeiting or fraud but upon identity theft.
And it is natural to read such a statute as insisting that the Government show that the defendant knew that he was stealing somebody's identity.
Thus, we hold that the Government must show that Flores-Figueroa knew that the false means of identification he gave his employer were those of another person.
For these reasons and others more fully explained in our opinion, we all reverse an Eighth Circuit determination to the contrary and we remand the case.
Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment which Justice Thomas has joined.
Justice Alito has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.