Flores-Figueroa v. United States
556 U.S. 646 (2009)

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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.

Primary Holding
A defendant cannot be convicted under the federal statute on aggravated identity theft unless he knew that the identification at issue actually belonged to someone else.
A Mexican national named Figueroa-Flores was convicted of entering the U.S. without inspection and misusing immigration documents. He also was convicted of aggravated identity theft under a federal statute that imposed a mandatory consecutive two-year prison term on a defendant who was convicted of certain predicate crimes if he used another person's identification in relation to committing the other crimes. Figueroa-Flores fell within this statute's prohibition because he gave his employer fake immigration and Social Security documents that combined his name with the identification numbers of others. He argued that the prosecution could not prove that he knew that the specific numbers actually had been assigned to other people.



  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)
  • John G. Roberts, Jr.
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The mental state of knowledge should apply across all of the elements of the crime that follow "knowingly," if no other mental state is mentioned. This is because most listeners to sentences in the English language would interpret the sentence in the statute accordingly, based on their understanding of grammar. Ordinary English usage is the appropriate way to interpret language in a criminal statute, and the prosecution is mistaken in arguing that this interpretation would result in superfluous language. Concerns raised by the government about its ability to effectively achieve the purpose of the statute through enforcement under this interpretation are also irrelevant, since the ordinary meaning of the statute controls. If Congress intended a different meaning to the statute, it should clarify it. There is no suggestion that it placed the highest priority on enforcement concerns.


  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • Clarence Thomas


  • Samuel A. Alito, Jr. (Author)

Case Commentary

Generally speaking, a mental state level in a statute will be construed to apply to all elements of an offense unless the other elements have a specific mental state attached to them, but this is not a universal rule.

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