There are strong textual reasons for rejecting the Government’s position. As a matter of ordinary English grammar, it seems natural to read the statute’s word “knowingly” as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime. The Government cannot easily claim that the word “knowingly” applies only to the statutes first four words, or even its first seven. It makes little sense to read the provision’s language as heavily penalizing a person who “transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority” a something, but does not know, at the very least, that the “something” (perhaps inside a box) is a “means of identification.” Would we apply a statute that makes it unlawful “knowingly to possess drugs” to a person who steals a passenger’s bag without knowing that the bag has drugs inside?
The Government claims more forcefully that the word “knowingly” applies to all but the statute’s last three words, i.e., “of another person.” The statute, the Government says, does not require a prosecutor to show that the defendant knows that the means of identification the defendant has unlawfully used in fact belongs to another person. But how are we to square this reading with the statute’s language?
In ordinary English, where a transitive verb has an object, listeners in most contexts assume that an adverb (such as knowingly) that modifies the transitive verb tells the listener how the subject performed the entire action, including the object as set forth in the sentence. Thus, if a bank official says, “Smith knowingly transferred the funds to his brother’s account,” we would normally understand the bank official’s statement as telling us that Smith knew the account was his brother’s. Nor would it matter if the bank official said “Smith knowingly transferred the funds to the account of his brother.” In either instance, if the bank official later told us that Smith did not know the account belonged to Smith’s brother, we should besurprised.
Of course, a statement that does not use the word “knowingly” may be unclear about just what Smith knows. Suppose Smith mails his bank draft to Tegucigalpa, which (perhaps unbeknownst to Smith) is the capital of Honduras. If the bank official says, “Smith sent a bank draft to the capital of Honduras,” he has expressed next to nothing about Smith’s knowledge of that geographic identity. But if the official were to say, “Smith knowingly sent a bank draft to the capital of Honduras,” then the official has suggested that Smith knows his geography.
Flores-Figeroa v. United States, No. 08-108 (U.S. 5/4/09).
Justice Alito, who was also paying attention in English class, wrote separately to express his opinion on how the word knowingly should be used.
While I am in general agreement with the opinion of the Court, I write separately because I am concerned that the Court’s opinion may be read by some as adopting an overly rigid rule of statutory construction. The Court says that “[i]n ordinary English, where a transitive verb has an object, listeners in most contexts assume that an adverb (such as knowingly) that modifies the transitive verb tells the listener how the subject performed the entire action, including the object as set forth in the sentence.” Ante, at 4. The Court adds that counterexamples are “not easy to find,” ante,at 5, and I suspect that the Court’s opinion will be cited for the proposition that the mens rea of a federal criminal statute nearly always applies to every element of the offense.
I think that the Court’s point about ordinary English usage is overstated. Examples of sentences that do not conform to the Court’s rule are not hard to imagine. For example: “The mugger knowingly assaulted two people in the park—an employee of company X and a jogger from town Y.” A person hearing this sentence would not likely assume that the mugger knew about the first victim’s employer or the second victim’s home town. What matters in this example, and the Court’s, is context.
More to the point, ordinary writers do not often construct the particular kind of sentence at issue here, i.e., a complex sentence in which it is important to determine from the sentence itself whether the adverb denoting the actor’s intent applies to every characteristic of the sentence’s direct object. Such sentences are a staple of criminal codes, but in ordinary speech, a different formulation is almost always used when the speaker wants to be clear on the point. For example, a speaker might say: “Flores-Figueroa used a Social Security number that he knew belonged to someone else” or “Flores-Figueroa used a Social Security number that just happened to belong to a real person.” But it is difficult to say with the confidence the Court conveys that there is an “ordinary” understanding of the usage of the phrase at issue in this case.
While Flores-Figeroa is a criminal opinion, it pays to be in the know about how to construe knowingly in bankruptcy court as well. I hope that these excerpts make everything perfectly clear.