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Law School Case Brief

Moskal v. United States - 498 U.S. 103, 111 S. Ct. 461 (1990)

Rule:

Because the meaning of language is inherently contextual, the Supreme Court of the United States has declined to deem a statute "ambiguous" for purposes of lenity merely because it was possible to articulate a construction more narrow than that urged by the government. Nor has the Court deemed a division of judicial authority automatically sufficient to trigger lenity. If that were sufficient, one court's unduly narrow reading of a criminal statute would become binding on all other courts, including the Court. Instead, the Court has always reserved lenity for those situations in which a reasonable doubt persists about a statute's intended scope even after resort to the language and structure, legislative history, and motivating policies of the statute.

Facts:

Among the matters prohibited by 18 U.S.C.S. § 2314 is the knowing transportation in interstate commerce of "falsely made, forged, altered, or counterfeited securities." Another statute defined "securities," for purposes of § 2314, to include valid motor vehicle titles. During the period from Dec. 1984 through July 1985, several individuals, including defendant Raymond J. Moskal, Sr., participated in a "title washing" scheme involving motor vehicle titles. Pursuant to such scheme: (1) used cars were purchased in Pennsylvania; (2) the cars' odometers were "rolled back" to indicate lower mileage figures; (3) the titles to the cars were altered to reflect such figures; (4) the altered titles were submitted to Virginia officials, who issued Virginia titles incorporating the false mileage figures; and (5) the "washed" titles were sent back to Pennsylvania, where they were used in connection with car sales to unsuspecting buyers. Moskal, who received the "washed" titles when they were returned, was indicted and convicted in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, for violating § 2314. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, affirming the conviction, ruled that the purpose of the term "falsely made" in § 2314 was to prohibit the fraudulent introduction into commerce of falsely made documents regardless of the precise method by which the documents' introducer, or the introducer's confederates, effected the documents' lack of authenticity. Moskal was granted a writ of certiorari.

Issue:

Did § 2314 encompass washed titles that were "falsely made" with fraudulent odometer readings?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the decision of the lower court and held that Moskal violated 18 U.S.C.S. § 2314 by receiving genuine vehicle titles with fraudulent odometer readings, knowing them to have been "falsely made." The Court granted certiorari to resolve a divergence of opinion about the interpretation of the phrase "falsely made" as it applied to § 2314, which prohibited the knowing transportation of falsely made, forged, altered, or counterfeited securities in interstate commerce. Interpreting the plain meaning of the statute, the words of § 2314 were broad enough to encompass washed titles with fraudulent odometer readings. Such titles were "falsely made" in the sense that they were made to contain false, or incorrect, information, a view that was supported by Congress' purpose in enacting § 2314. Therefore, the Court found both in the plain meaning of § 2314 and in the legislative purpose underlying it ample reason to apply the law to a fraudulent scheme for washing vehicle titles.

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