Liparota v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Cleburne City Hall

DOCKET NO.: 84-5108
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 471 US 419 (1985)
ARGUED: Mar 19, 1985
DECIDED: May 13, 1985

Charles A. Rothfeld - on behalf of the Respondent
William Thomas Huyck - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Liparota v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 19, 1985 in Liparota v. United States

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments this afternoon in Liparota against the United States.

Mr. Huyck, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

William Thomas Huyck:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case presents the Court with a question of interpretation of the language of a federal criminal statute.

The statute at issue, Section 2024(b) of Title VII is one of a common type of criminal statute appended to a statute of Congress establishing a program... in this case the food stamp program... and providing for criminal prosecution for fraud, and stating in relevant part that whoever knowingly acquires food stamps in any manner not authorized by this chapter is guilty of an offense.

And the issue that's presented as to the wording of this statute is, taking the phrase, again in relevant part, acquires coupons in any manner not authorized by the chapter, since Congress has chosen to use the word "knowingly", does the word "knowingly" apply to that entire phrase; or, as argued by the Government, does it apply to only a portion of the phrase, namely "acquires coupons"; that in other words, the offender knew he was acquiring coupons, but that he need not know it was in any manner in violation of the statute.

The facts of this case can be stated very briefly.

The petitioner and his brother ran a small sandwich shop in a poor neighborhood in Chicago which was not a member of the food stamp program.

There was quite a bit of evidence in the record about the enforcement of the food stamp regulations against food stores and other participants in the food stamp program which in essence establishes a tremendous amount of notice and warning prior to undercover criminal investigation.

None of this applied to the sandwich shop that petitioner and his brother ran.

An undercover agent with a secret tape recorder came into their sandwich shop, having gone to a food store that she was investigating, the food store having told them that they would not buy food stamps from her, and then she went to... but told her try the sandwich shop down the street, whereupon she sent into the sandwich shop, offered to sell food stamps at a discount to petitioner and his brother, and did so on three occasions, whereupon they were prosecuted.

The issue that is before this Court was raised in the jury instruction conference.

The trial counsel, myself, offered a specific intent jury instruction, the standard specific intent jury instruction, that he had to be purposefully intending to violate the law.

The Government objected, and the judge agreed, that this was a strict liability offense as to the element of knowledge of violating the law, and thereupon, the judge's instruction to the jury told the jury in essence there were three elements of the offense, and he divided the action element from the knowledge element.

He said that they had to find first that the defendant acquired and possessed food stamp coupons for cash in a manner not authorized by federal statute, the act; and then he said second, they have to find the defendant knowingly and willfully acquired the food stamps, but not that it was in a manner in violation of the regulations.

William H. Rehnquist:

In your view did that mean the jury need only find that the defendant knew that the food stamps were food stamps and not postcards, so to speak?

William Thomas Huyck:

Yes, exactly.

And that... there was a colloquy with the court, and in fact the colloquy went so far as my asking the court can I argue to the jury... my client had testified in this case that he was not familiar with the food stamp regulations, and that he did not know that it violated any regulations for him to be buying these food stamps from this undercover agent.

And this was virtually the only defense that he had other than entrapment, which was also a defense.

So this took me by surprise that this was going to be interpreted not as a specific intent crime, and so there was a colloquy, and I asked the judge can I argue that to the jury, and the judge said no, you cannot argue ignorance of the law in this case to the jury.

Warren E. Burger:

Do you think Congress was concerned about acts or attitudes?

William Thomas Huyck:

I think that Congress in drafting the statute used the word "knowingly" for some purpose, and I think that they... this is a statute where the element of it being in violation of the statute is written right into the words of the statute.

And so I think that by using the phrase

"knowingly acquires food stamps in any manner not permitted by this chapter, that that is the plain meaning of Congress. "

Warren E. Burger:

You don't think it means that Congress was concerned about whether he knew what he was doing?

William Thomas Huyck:


That's precisely my point.

They did not use the word "knowingly"--

Warren E. Burger:

And don't you think this instruction that was given submitted that issue to the jury fairly?

William Thomas Huyck:

--It submitted the issue as far as "knowingly" goes.