Flores-Figueroa v. United States

556 U.S. 646, 129 S. Ct. 1886 (2009)



A federal criminal statute forbidding aggravated identity theft imposes a mandatory consecutive two-year prison term upon individuals convicted of certain other crimes if, during (or in relation to) the commission of those other crimes, the offender knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person. 18 U.S.C.S. § 1028A(a)(1). The statute requires the government to show that the defendant knew that the "means of identification" he or she unlawfully transferred, possessed, or used, in fact, belonged to "another person."


Defendant was convicted under 8 U.S.C.S. § 1325(a) of entering the United States without inspection, under 18 U.S.C.S. § 1546(a) of misusing immigration documents, and under 18 U.S.C.S. § 1028A(a)(1) of aggravated identity theft. Defendant had presented to his employer counterfeit Social Security and alien registration cards, which contained identification numbers that had been assigned to other people. Defendant argued that, under § 1028A(a)(1), the government was required to prove that defendant knew that the numbers on the documents in fact belonged to other people, while the government claimed that no such proof was necessary. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari as to defendant's conviction under § 1028A(a)(1). The court of appeals' judgment was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings


In cases of aggravated identity theft filed under 18 U.S.C.S. § 1028A(a)(1), should the Government prove the knowledge of the accused regarding his usage of identification numbers that belong to other people?




The Supreme Court held that § 1028A(a)(1) required proof that defendant knew that the means of identification he unlawfully transferred, possessed, or used belonged to another person. According to the Court, Section 1028A(a)(1) requires the Government to show that the defendant knew that the means of identification at issue belonged to another person. The Court noted that courts ordinarily interpret criminal statutes consistently with the ordinary English usage. In this case, 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 Court maintained that 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. 

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