When does “knowingly” require knowledge of the law? Whenever the court thinks it should…

The first principle of statutory construction articulated by the federal courts is the common law presumption that criminal culpability requires a guilty mind, or some knowledge that the actor is performing a wrongful act. We must construe the statute in light of the background rules of the common law, in which the requirement of some mens rea for a crime is firmly embedded.

The United States Supreme Court first addressed the issue of the extent to which a mental state requirement should be “read into” a statute in Liparota v. United States. 471 U.S. 419 (1985). In Liparota, the defendant was convicted under a federal statute which was similarly ambiguous as to how much of the sentence the word “knowingly” should modify. Id. at 420. The statute in Liparota prohibited the unauthorized use of federal food stamps, and provided that “whoever knowingly uses, transfers, acquires, alters or possesses coupons or authorization cards in any manner not authorized by [the statute] or the regulations is subject to a fine and imprisonment.” Id. at 420-21 (quotation marks omitted). The issue, then, was whether the Government must prove only knowing use, transfer, acquisition, alteration, or possession of the foods stamps, or whether the Government must also prove that the defendant knowingly violated the statute or the regulations. Id.

The Court held that the Government must prove that the defendant not only knowingly used, transferred, acquired, altered, or possessed food stamps, but also that the defendant knowingly acted in violation of the food stamp statutes. Id. at 425. In support of its decision, the Supreme Court cited the “universal and persistent” presumption that “an injury can amount to a crime only when inflicted by intention[.]” Id. This presumption is especially true, the Court held, in cases where “to interpret the statute otherwise would be to criminalize a broad range of apparently innocent conduct.” Id.

After Liparota, the federal courts of appeal rendered several decisions consistent with that opinion. For example, in 1998, the Second Circuit considered a similarly ambiguously worded statute with a knowingly mental state requirement. See Figueroa v. United States, 165 F.3d 111 (1998). In Figueroa, the criminal statute at issue was 8 U.S.C. § 1327, which provided that “any person who knowingly aids or assists any excludable alien … to enter the United States” shall be fined or imprisoned. Id. at 114. The issue on appeal was whether the Government was required to prove that the defendant had knowledge of not only his act of aiding and assisting entrance to the United States, but also of the excludability of the alien to whom he knowingly gave aid or assistance.
Writing for the majority, Judge Sotomayor held that “absent clear congressional intent to the contrary, statutes defining federal crimes are … normally read to contain a mens rea requirement that attaches to enough elements of the crime that together would be sufficient to constitute an act in violation of the law.” Id. at 116. The Second Circuit held, in accordance with Liparota, that because it is normally not a crime to aid or assist an alien in entering the United States unless that alien is for some reason “excludable,” the “knowingly” mental state must also modify the “excludability” element of the statute. Id.

State v. Huckelba, No. COA14-916 (N.C. App. 2015) (cleaned up) (footnotes and most citations omitted).

in the absence of statutory language or legislative history to the contrary, Congress’ use of the word “knowingly” in a criminal statute aimed at regulating dangerous objects does not itself abrogate the ancient maxim that ignorance of the law is no excuse. An act is done knowingly if the defendant is aware of the act and does not act through ignorance, mistake, or accident. The government is not required to prove that the defendant knew that her acts were unlawful.

There are limited exceptions to that principle. For instance, in Liparota v. United States (1985), the Supreme Court read a specific intent requirement into the crime of food stamp fraud, which punishes “whoever knowingly uses, transfers, acquires, alters, or possesses coupons or authorization cards in any manner not authorized by [the statute] or the regulations.” The Court rejected the government’s argument that the statute contained no mens rea requirement, and read the statute to require a showing that the defendant knew his conduct to be unauthorized by statute or regulations.

The Court analogized the statute to the crime of receiving stolen goods, to which it is a defense that the defendant did not know the goods to be stolen. And, the Court reasoned, to interpret the statute otherwise would be “to criminalize a broad range of apparently innocent conduct.” The Court also explained that “requiring mens rea is in keeping with our longstanding recognition of the principle that ambiguity concerning the ambit of criminal statutes should be resolved in favor of lenity.” But the Court distinguished the statute from other laws that “rendered criminal a type of conduct that a reasonable person should know is subject to stringent public regulation.”

Relying on a similar distinction, the Sixth Circuit has held that Liparota is inapposite to the specific statute at issue in this case. United States v. Elshenawy, 801 F.2d 856 (6th Cir.1986). The court noted that the statutory language defined the offense solely with reference to the absence of indicia of state tax payment and location in a state requiring such indicia. And the Sixth Circuit relied on other Supreme Court precedents that, in other contexts, rejected claims that “knowingly” possessing contraband required specific intent. Those cases, the Sixth Circuit explained, dealt with possession of heavily regulated articles—firearms, corrosive liquids, and drugs. In each case, the government was required to show that the defendant knew the physical nature of what he possessed, but not that he knew that possession was regulated or prohibited. However, in Liparota, which dealt with possession of food stamps, the government was required to prove both that the defendant knew the physical nature of what he possessed and that he knew that the possession was “not authorized.” We conclude that possession of larger quantities of cigarettes is much more nearly analogous to possession of other heavily regulated articles such as firearms, corrosive liquids, and drugs than it is to possession of food stamps.

US v. Tang Nguyen, 926 F. Supp. 2d 1050 (Dist. Court, D. Nebraska 2013) (cleaned up) (footnotes and most citations omitted).

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