When the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted statutes that include a list of terms or phrases followed by a limiting clause, the Court has typically applied an interpretive strategy called the rule of the last antecedent. The rule provides that a limiting clause or phrase should ordinarily be read as modifying only the noun or phrase that it immediately follows.
Petitioner Avondale Lockhart pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. §2252(a)(4). Because Lockhart had a prior state-court conviction for first-degree sexual abuse involving his adult girlfriend, his presentence report concluded that he was subject to the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence enhancement provided in §2252(b)(2), which is triggered by, inter alia, prior state convictions for crimes “relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” Lockhart argued that the limiting phrase “involving a minor or ward” applied to all three state crimes, so his prior conviction did not trigger the enhancement. Disagreeing, the District Court applied the mandatory minimum. The Second Circuit affirmed.
Does the phrase “involving a minor or ward” modify all items in the list of predicate crimes in 18 U.S.C.S. § 2252(a)(4) (“aggravated sexual abuse,” “sexual abuse,” and “abusive sexual conduct”) rather than only the one item that immediately precedes it (“abusive sexual conduct”)?
The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and held that the defendant's sentence for possession of child pornography was properly enhanced under 18 U.S.C.S. § 2252(b)(2) based on a prior state conviction for sexual abuse of an adult, since the phrase “involving a minor or ward” modified only abusive sexual conduct under the rule of the last antecedent, and did not modify the preceding bases for the enhancement based on convictions for aggravated sexual abuse or sexual abuse. Parallel provisions for sentence enhancements based on federal convictions using almost identical language supported the interpretation that only abusive sexual conduct required involvement of a minor, since the three predicate convictions were set out in three separate statutes and the involvement of a minor was only required in the statute directed to abusive sexual conduct.