Facts of the Case
Whether a criminal statute requires the Government to prove that the defendant acted knowingly is a question of congressional intent. In determining Congress’ intent, the U.S. Supreme Court starts from a longstanding presumption, traceable to the common law, that Congress intends to require a defendant to possess a culpable mental state regarding each of the statutory elements that criminalize otherwise innocent conduct. When a statute prescribes the kind of culpability that is sufficient for the commission of an offense, without distinguishing among the material elements thereof, such provision shall apply to all the material elements of the offense, unless a contrary purpose plainly appears.
Does the “knowingly” provision of 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2) apply to both the possession and status elements of a § 922(g) crime, or only to the possession element?
The “knowingly” provision of 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2) applies to both the possession and status elements of a § 922(g) crime, under which it is a criminal offense for a person who “is illegally or unlawfully in the United States” to possess “any firearm or ammunition.” That is, to convict a defendant of this crime, the government must show that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he belonged to the relevant class of persons when he possessed it.Justice Stephen Breyer authored the 7-2 majority opinion of the Court. There is a longstanding presumption that “Congress intends to require a defendant to possess a culpable mental state regarding each of the statutory elements that criminalize otherwise innocent conduct.” Courts apply this presumption of mental state, or “scienter,” even in the absence of any scienter in the statute. The text of § 924(a)(2) provides that “whoever knowingly violates” certain subsections “shall be” subject to certain penalties. Thus, using “ordinary English grammar,” the Court read the statutory term “knowingly” as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime. The Court found further support for its interpretation in the basic principle of criminal law that criminal intent separates wrongful from innocent acts.Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Clarence Thomas joined. Justice Alito criticized the majority for manipulating the statutory text in an unnatural manner to apply the scienter requirement—“knowingly”—to the status element of the crime. Justice Alito argued that the Court has never inferred that Congress intended to impose a mental culpability requirement on an element that concerns the defendant’s own status and should not do so in this case.
- Citation: 588 US _ (2019)
- Granted: Jan 11, 2019
- Argued: Apr 23, 2019
- Decided Jun 21, 2019