(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday narrowed the scope of a federal law that extends the prison term of immigrants who use stolen identities to commit other crimes. Justice Breyer said the government must prove that the defendant knew the identity belonged to another person.
The justices unanimously reversed a ruling for the government in its case against Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican citizen who gave his employer a false Social Security number and counterfeit alien registration card.
When immigration officials discovered that the numbers belonged to other people, they charged Flores with entering the United States without inspection, misusing immigration documents and aggravated identity theft.
Federal law imposes a mandatory two-year sentence on anyone who “knowingly transfers, possesses or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person.”
Flores moved for acquittal on the “aggravated identity theft counts,” claiming the government could not prove that he knew the counterfeit numbers belonged to other people.
The government argued that it need not prove knowledge, but even if it did, the word “knowingly” applies to all but the last three words, “of another person.”
The district court rejected Flores’ claim and found him guilty on all counts. The 8th Circuit affirmed.
Justice Breyer examined the language of the law in overturning the lower courts.
“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,” Breyer wrote.
“If we say that someone knowingly ate a sandwich with cheese, we normally assume that the person knew both that he was eating a sandwich and that it contained cheese.”
The court reversed and remanded, saying the language of the provision is clear.
In concurring opinions, Justices Scalia and Alito stressed the notion that context matters. Alito said he was concerned “that the court’s opinion may be read by some as adopting an overly rigid rule of statutory construction.”