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Flores-Figueroa v. United States - 08-108 (2009)

Syllabus (pdf)
Opinion [ Justice Breyer ] (pdf)
Concurrence [ Justice Scalia ] (pdf)
Concurrence [ Justice Alito ] (pdf)




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

No. 08–108. Argued February 25, 2009—Decided May 4, 2009

A federal statute forbidding “[a]ggravated identity theft” imposes a mandatory consecutive 2-year prison term on an individual convicted of certain predicate crimes if, during (or in relation to) the commission of those other crimes, the offender “knowingly … uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person.” 18 U. S. C. §1028A(a)(1) (emphasis added). After petitioner Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican citizen, gave his employer counterfeit Social Security and alien registration cards containing his name but other people’s identification numbers, he was arrested and charged with two immigration offenses and aggravated identity theft. Flores moved for acquittal on the latter charge, claiming that the Government could not prove that he knew that the documents’ numbers were assigned to other people. The District Court agreed with the Government that the word “knowingly” in §1028A(a)(1) does not modify the statute’s last three words, “of another person,” and, after trial, found Flores guilty on all counts. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.

Held: Section §1028(a)(1) requires the Government to show that the defendant knew that the means of identification at issue belonged to another person. As a matter of ordinary English grammar, “knowingly” is naturally read as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime. Where a transitive verb has an object, listeners in most contexts assume that an adverb (such as “knowingly”) that modifies the verb tells the listener how the subject performed the entire action, including the object. The Government does not provide a single example of a sentence that, when used in typical fashion, would lead the hearer to a contrary understanding. And courts ordinarily interpret criminal statutes consistently with the ordinary English usage. See, e.g., Liparota v. United States, 471 U. S. 419. The Government argues that this position is incorrect because it would either require the same language to be interpreted differently in a neighboring provision or would render the language in that provision superfluous. This argument fails for two reasons. Finally, the Government’s arguments based on the statute’s purpose and on the practical problems of enforcing it are not sufficient to overcome the ordinary meaning, in English or through ordinary interpretive practice, of Congress’ words. Pp. 4–11.

274 Fed. Appx. 501, reversed and remanded.

   Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Thomas, J., joined. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

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