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LIPAROTA V. UNITED STATES, 471 U. S. 419 (1985)

U.S. Supreme Court

Liparota v. United States, 471 U.S. 419 (1985)

Liparota v. United States

No. 84-5108

Argued March 19, 1985

Decided May 13, 1985

471 U.S. 419


The federal statute governing food stamp fraud provides in 7 U.S.C. § 2024(b)(1) that

"whoever knowingly uses, transfers, acquires, alters, or possesses coupons or authorization cards in any manner not authorized by [the statute] or the regulations"

shall be guilty of a criminal offense. Petitioner was indicted for violation of § 2024(b)(1). At a jury trial in Federal District Court, the Government proved that petitioner on three occasions had purchased food stamps from an undercover Department of Agriculture agent for substantially less then their face value. The court refused petitioner's proposed jury instruction that the Government must prove that petitioner knowingly did an act that the law forbids, purposely intending to violate the law. Rather, over petitioner's objection, the court instructed the jury that the Government had to prove that petitioner acquired and possessed the food stamps in a manner not authorized by statute or regulations, and that he knowingly and willfully acquired the stamps. Petitioner was convicted. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Absent any indication of a contrary purpose in the statute's language or legislative history, the Government in a prosecution for violation of § 2024(b)(1) must prove that the defendant knew that his acquisition or possession of food stamps was in a manner unauthorized by statute or regulations. Pp. 471 U. S. 423-434.

(a) Criminal offenses requiring no mens rea have a generally disfavored status. The failure of Congress explicitly and unambiguously to indicate whether mens rea is required does not signal a departure from this background assumption of our criminal law. Moreover, to interpret the statute to dispense with mens rea would be to criminalize a broad range of apparently innocent conduct. In addition, requiring mens rea in this case is in keeping with the established principle that ambiguity concerning the ambit of criminal statutes should be resolved in favor of lenity. Pp. 471 U. S. 425-428.

(b) The fact that § 2024(c), which is directed primarily at stores authorized to accept food stamps from program participants, differs in wording and structure from § 2024(b)(1), and provides that

"[w]hoever presents, or causes to be presented, coupons for payment or redemption . . . knowing the same to have been received, transferred, or used in any

Page 471 U. S. 420

manner in violation of [the statute] or the regulations,"

fails to show a congressional purpose not to require proof of the defendant's knowledge of illegality in a § 2024(b)(1) prosecution. Nor has it been shown that requiring knowledge of illegality in a § 2024(c), but not a § 2024(b)(1), prosecution is supported by such obvious and compelling policy reasons that it should be assumed that Congress intended to make such a distinction. Pp. 471 U. S. 428-430.

(c) United States v. Yermian, 468 U. S. 63, does not support an interpretation of § 2024(b)(1) dispensing with the requirement that the Government prove the defendant's knowledge of illegality. Nor is the § 2024(b)(1) offense a "public welfare" offense that depends on no mental element, but consists only of forbidden acts or omissions. Pp. 471 U. S. 431-433.

735 F.2d 1044, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 471 U. S. 434. POWELL, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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