Moskal v. United States
498 U.S. 103 (1990)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Moskal v. United States, 498 U.S. 103 (1990)

Moskal v. United States

No. 89-964

Argued Oct. 1, 1990

Decided Dec. 3, 1990

498 U.S. 103

Syllabus

Petitioner participated in a "title washing" scheme in which automobile titles that had been altered to reflect rolled-back odometer mileage figures were sent from Pennsylvania to Virginia. After Virginia authorities, unaware of the alterations, issued Virginia titles incorporating the false figures, Moskal received the "washed" titles in Pennsylvania, where they were used in connection with car sales to unsuspecting buyers. Moskal was convicted of receiving two washed titles under 18 U.S.C. § 2314, which prohibits the knowing transportation of "falsely made, forged, altered, or counterfeited securities" in interstate commerce. (Emphasis added.) In affirming Moskal's conviction, the Court of Appeals rejected his contention that, because the washed titles were genuine, inasmuch as the Virginia officials who issued them did not know of the falsity, the titles therefore were not "falsely made."

Held: A person who receives genuine vehicle titles, knowing that they incorporate fraudulently tendered odometer readings, receives those titles knowing them to have been "falsely made" in violation of § 2314. Pp. 498 U. S. 106-118.

(a) Moskal misconstrues the doctrine of lenity when he contends that because it is possible to read § 2314 as applying only to forged or counterfeited securities, and because some courts have so read it, this Court should simply resolve the issue in his favor under that doctrine. The doctrine applies only to 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. Such factors demonstrate that § 2314 unambiguously applies to Moskal's conduct. Pp. 498 U. S. 106-108.

(b) Both the plain meaning of the words "falsely made" and the legislative purpose underlying them provide ample support for applying § 2314 to a fraudulent scheme for washing vehicle titles. The quoted words are broad enough, on their face, to encompass washed titles containing fraudulently tendered odometer readings, since such titles are made to contain false, or incorrect, information. The fact that the state officials responsible for issuing such titles did not know that they were incorporating false readings is irrelevant, since § 2314 liability depends on transporting the "falsely made" security with unlawful or fraudulent intent,

Page 498 U. S. 104

and not on the scienter of the person who physically produces the security. Moskal's construction of § 2314 as excluding any security that is "genuine" or valid deprives the "falsely made" phrase of any meaning independent of the statutory terms "forged" and "counterfeited," and therefore violates the established principle that a court should give effect, if possible, to every clause or word of a statute. That "falsely made" encompasses genuine documents containing false information is also supported by § 2314's purpose of curbing the type of trafficking in fraudulent securities that depends for its success on the exploitation of interstate commerce to avoid detection by individual states, such as a title washing operation. The fact that the legislative history contains references to counterfeit securities but not to odometer rollback schemes does not require a different conclusion, since, in choosing the broad phrase "falsely made, forged, altered, or counterfeited securities," Congress sought to reach a class of frauds that exploited interstate commerce. This Court has never required that every permissible application of a statute be expressly referred to in its legislative history. Moreover, the Court's § 2314 precedents specifically reject constructions that limit the statute to instances of fraud, rather than the class of fraud encompassed by its language. See United States v. Sheridan,329 U. S. 379, 329 U. S. 390, 329 U. S. 391; McElroy v. United States,455 U. S. 642, 455 U. S. 655, 455 U. S. 656, 455 U. S. 658. 498 U. S. 108-114.

(c) The foregoing reading of § 2314 is not precluded by the principle of statutory construction requiring that, where a federal criminal statute uses a common law term of established meaning without otherwise defining it, the term must generally be given that meaning. Although, at the time Congress enacted the relevant clause of § 2314, many courts had interpreted "falsely made" to exclude documents that were false only in content, that interpretation was not universal, other courts having taken divergent views. Where no fixed usage existed at common law, it is more appropriate to inquire which of the common law readings of the term best accords with the overall purpose of the statute, rather than simply to assume, for example, that Congress adopted the reading that was followed by the largest number of common law courts. Moreover, Congress' general purpose in enacting a law may prevail over the "common law meaning" rule of construction. Since the position of those common law courts that define "falsely made" to exclude documents that are false only in content does not accord with Congress' broad purpose in enacting § 2314 -- namely to criminalize trafficking in fraudulent securities that exploits interstate commerce -- it is far more likely that Congress adopted the common law view of "falsely made" that encompasses "genuine" documents that are false in content. Pp. 498 U. S. 114-118.

Page 498 U. S. 105

(d) Moskal's policy arguments for narrowly construing "falsely made" are unpersuasive. First, there is no evidence to suggest that States will deem washed titles automatically invalid -- thereby creating chaos in the stream of automobile commerce -- simply because federal law punishes those responsible for introducing such fraudulent securities into commerce. Second, construing "falsely made" to apply to securities containing false information will not criminalize a broad range of "innocent" conduct. A person who transports such securities in interstate commerce violates § 2314 only if he does so with unlawful or fraudulent intent and if the false information is itself material, and conduct that satisfies these tests is not "innocent." P. 498 U. S. 118.

888 F.2d 283 (CA3 1989), affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which O'CONNOR and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, post, p. 498 U. S. 119. SOUTER, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.