JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
The federal statute governing food stamp fraud provides 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. 78 Stat. 708, as amended, 7 U. S. C. § 2024(b)(1).
Petitioner Frank Liparota was the co-owner with his brother of Moon's Sandwich Shop in Chicago, Illinois. He was indicted for acquiring and possessing food stamps in violation of § 2024(b)(1). The Department of Agriculture had not authorized petitioner's restaurant to accept food stamps. App. 6-7.
In submitting the case to the jury, the District Court rejected petitioner's proposed "specific intent" instruction, which would have instructed the jury that the Government must prove that "the defendant knowingly did an act which the law forbids, purposely intending to violate the law." Id., at 34.
The District Court also instructed that the Government had to prove that "the Defendant acquired and possessed food stamp coupons for cash in a manner not authorized by federal statute or regulations" and that "the Defendant knowingly and wilfully acquired the food stamps." 3 Tr. 251. Petitioner objected that this instruction required the jury to find merely that he knew that he was acquiring or possessing food stamps; he argued that the statute should be construed instead to reach only "people who knew that they were acting
Petitioner appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, arguing that the District Court erred in refusing to instruct the jury that "specific intent" is required in a prosecution under 7 U. S. C. § 2024(b)(1). The Court of Appeals rejected petitioner's arguments. 735 F.2d 1044 (1984). Because this decision conflicted with recent decisions of three other Courts of Appeals,
The controversy between the parties concerns the mental state, if any, that the Government must show in proving that petitioner acted "in any manner not authorized by [the statute] or the regulations." The Government argues that petitioner violated the statute if he knew that he acquired or possessed food stamps and if in fact that acquisition or possession was in a manner not authorized by statute or regulations. According to the Government, no mens rea, or "evil-meaning mind," Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 251 (1952), is necessary for conviction. Petitioner claims that the Government's interpretation, by dispensing with mens rea, dispenses with the only morally blameworthy element in the definition of the crime. To avoid this allegedly untoward result, he claims that an individual violates the statute if he knows that he has acquired or possessed food stamps and if he also knows that he has done so in an unauthorized manner.
Absent indication of contrary purpose in the language or legislative history of the statute, we believe that § 2024(b)(1) requires a showing that the defendant knew his conduct to be unauthorized by statute or regulations.
This construction is particularly appropriate where, as here, to interpret the statute otherwise would be to criminalize a broad range of apparently innocent conduct. For instance, § 2024(b)(1) declares it criminal to use, transfer, acquire, alter, or possess food stamps in any manner not authorized by statute or regulations. The statute provides further that "[c]oupons issued to eligible households shall be used by them only to purchase food in retail food stores which have been approved for participation in the food stamp program at prices prevailing in such stores." 7 U. S. C. § 2016(b) (emphasis added); see also 7 CFR § 274.10(a) (1985).
In addition, 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." Rewis v. United States, 401 U.S. 808, 812 (1971). See also United States v. United States Gypsum Co., supra, at 437; United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 347-348 (1971); Bell v. United States, 349 U.S. 81, 83 (1955); United States v. Universal C. I. T. Credit Corp., 344 U.S. 218, 221-222 (1952). Application of the rule of lenity ensures that criminal statutes will provide fair warning concerning conduct rendered illegal and strikes the appropriate balance between the legislature, the prosecutor, and the court in defining criminal liability. See United States v. Bass, supra, at 348 ("[B]ecause of the seriousness of criminal penalties, and because criminal punishment usually represents the moral condemnation of the community, legislatures and not courts should define criminal activity"). Although the rule of lenity is not to be applied where to do so would conflict with the implied or expressed intent of Congress, it provides a time-honored interpretive guideline when the congressional purpose is unclear. In the instant case, the rule directly supports petitioner's contention that the Government
The Government argues, however, that a comparison between § 2024(b)(1) and its companion, § 2024(c), demonstrates a congressional purpose not to require proof of the defendant's knowledge of illegality in a § 2024(b)(1) prosecution. Section 2024(c) is directed primarily at stores authorized to accept food stamps from program participants. It provides that "[w]hoever presents, or causes to be presented, coupons for payment or redemption . . . knowing the same to have been received, transferred, or used in any manner in violation of [the statute] or the regulations" is subject to fine and imprisonment (emphasis added).
The Government urges that this distinction between the mental state required for a § 2024(c) violation and that required for a § 2024(b)(1) violation is a sensible one. Absent a requirement of mens rea, a grocer presenting food stamps for payment might be criminally liable under § 2024(c) even if his customer or employees have illegally procured or transferred the stamps without the grocer's knowledge. Requiring knowledge of illegality in a § 2024(c) prosecution is allegedly necessary to avoid this kind of vicarious, and non-fault-based, criminal liability. Since the offense defined in § 2024(b)(1) — using, transferring, acquiring, altering, or possessing food stamps in an unauthorized manner — does not involve this possibility of vicarious liability, argues the Government, Congress had no reason to impose a similar knowledge of illegality requirement in that section.
We do not find this argument persuasive. The difference in wording between § 2024(b)(1) and § 2024(c) is too slender a reed to support the attempted distinction, for if the Government's argument were accepted, it would lead to the demise of the very distinction that Congress is said to have desired. According to the Government, Congress did intend a knowledge of illegality requirement in § 2024(c), while it did not intend such a requirement in § 2024(b)(1). Anyone who has violated § 2024(c) has "present[ed], or caus[ed] to be presented, coupons for payment or redemption" in an unauthorized manner. Such a person would seemingly have also "use[d], transfer[red], acquir[ed], alter[ed], or possess[ed]" the coupons in a similarly unauthorized manner, and thus to have violated § 2024(b)(1). It follows that the Government will be able to prosecute any violator of § 2024(c) under § 2024(b)(1) as well. If only § 2024(c) — and not § 2024(b)(1) — required the Government to prove knowledge of illegality, the result would be that the Government could always avoid proving knowledge of illegality in food stamp fraud cases,
For similar reasons, the Government's arguments that Congress could have had a plausible reason to require knowledge of illegality in prosecutions under § 2024(c), but not § 2024(b)(1), are equally unpersuasive. Grocers are participants in the food stamp program who have had the benefit of an extensive informational campaign concerning the authorized use and handling of food stamps. App. 7-8. Yet the Government would have to prove knowledge of illegality when prosecuting such grocers, while it would have no such burden when prosecuting third parties who may well have had no opportunity to acquaint themselves with the rules governing food stamps. It is not immediately obvious that Congress would have been so concerned about imposing strict liability on grocers, while it had no similar concerns about imposing strict liability on nonparticipants in the program. Our point once again is not that Congress could not have chosen to enact a statute along these lines, for there are no doubt policy arguments on both sides of the question as to whether such a statute would have been desirable. Rather, we conclude that the policy underlying such a construction is neither so obvious nor so compelling that we must assume, in the absence of any discussion of this issue in the legislative history, that Congress did enact such a statute.
Second, the Government contends that the § 2024(b)(1) offense is a "public welfare" offense, which the Court defined in Morissette v. United States, 342 U. S., at 252-253, to "depend on no mental element but consist only of forbidden acts or omissions." Yet the offense at issue here differs substantially from those "public welfare offenses" we have previously
We hold that in a prosecution for violation of § 2024(b)(1), the Government must prove that the defendant knew that his acquisition or possession of food stamps was in a manner unauthorized by statute or regulations.
JUSTICE POWELL took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
JUSTICE WHITE, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE joins, dissenting.
Forsaking reliance on either the language or the history of § 2024(b)(1), the majority bases its result on the absence of an explicit rejection of the general principle that criminal liability requires not only an actus reus, but a mens rea. In my view, the result below is in fact supported by the statute's language and its history, and it is the majority that has ignored general principles of criminal liability.
The Court views the statutory problem here as being how far down the sentence the term "knowingly" travels. See
In any event, I think that the premise of this approach is mistaken. Even accepting that "knowingly" does extend through the sentence, or at least that we should read
This point is demonstrated by the hypothetical statute referred to by the majority, which punishes one who "knowingly sells a security without a permit." See ante, at 424-425, n. 7. Even if "knowingly" does reach "without a permit," I would think that a defendant who knew that he did not have a permit, though not that a permit was required, could be convicted.
Section 2024(b)(1) is an identical statute, except that instead of detailing the various legal requirements, it incorporates them by proscribing use of coupons "in any manner not authorized" by law. This shorthand approach to drafting does not transform knowledge of illegality into an element of the crime. As written, § 2024(b)(1) is substantively no different than if it had been broken down into a collection of specific provisions making crimes of particular improper uses. For example, food stamps cannot be used to purchase tobacco. 7 CFR §§ 271.2, 274.10(a), 278.2(a) (1985). The statute might have said, inter alia, that anyone "who knowingly uses coupons to purchase cigarettes" commits a crime. Under no plausible reading could a defendant then be acquitted because he did not know cigarettes are not "eligible food." But in fact, that is exactly what § 2024(b)(1) does say; it just does not write it out longhand.
The Court's opinion provides another illustration of the general point: someone who used food stamps to purchase groceries at inflated prices without realizing he was over-charged.
The majority and I would part company in result as well as rationale if the purchaser knew he was charged higher than normal prices but not that overcharging is prohibited. In such a case, he would have been aware of the nature of his actions, and therefore the purchase would have been "knowing." I would hold that such a mental state satisfies the statute. Under the Court's holding, as I understand it, that person could not be convicted because he did not know that his conduct was illegal.
I therefore cannot draw the Government's suggested inference. The two provisions are nonetheless fruitfully compared. What matters is not their difference, but their similarity. Neither contains any indication that "knowledge of the law defining the offense [is] an element of the offense." See ALI, Model Penal Code § 2.02, Comment 11, p. 131 (Tent. Draft No. 4, 1955). A requirement of knowing illegality should not be read into either provision.
I do agree with the Government that when Congress wants to include a knowledge-of-illegality requirement in a statute it knows how to do so, even though I do not consider subsection (c) an example. Other provisions of the United States Code explicitly include a requirement of familiarity with the law defining the offense — indeed, in places where, under the majority's analysis, it is entirely superfluous. E. g., 15 U. S. C. §§ 79z-3, 80a-48. See also Model Penal Code, supra, at 139. Congress could easily have included a similar provision in § 2024(b)(1), but did not. Cf. United States v. Turkette, 452 U.S. 576, 580-581 (1981).
Finally, the lower court's reading of the statute is consistent with the legislative history. As the majority points out,
The broad principles of the Court's opinion are easy to live with in a case such as this. But the application of its reasoning might not always be so benign. For example, § 2024(b)(1) is little different from the basic federal prohibition on the manufacture and distribution of controlled substances. Title 21 U. S. C. § 841(a) provides:
I am sure that the Members of the majority would agree that a defendant charged under this provision could not defend on the ground that he did not realize his manufacture was unauthorized or that the particular substance was controlled. See United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250 (1922). On the other hand, it would be a defense if he could prove he thought the substance was something other than what it was. By the same token, I think, someone in petitioner's position should not be heard to say that he did not know his purchase of food stamps was unauthorized, though he may certainly argue that he did not know he was buying food stamps. I would not stretch the term "knowingly" to require awareness of the absence of statutory authority in either of these provisions.
In relying on the "background assumption of our criminal law" that mens rea is required, ante, at 426, the Court ignores the equally well founded assumption that ignorance of the law is no excuse. It is "the conventional position that knowledge of the existence, meaning or application of the law determining the elements of an offense is not an element of that offense . . . ." Model Penal Code, supra, at 130.
This Court's prior cases indicate that a statutory requirement of a "knowing violation" does not supersede this principle. For example, under the statute at issue in United States v. International Minerals & Chemical Corp., 402 U.S. 558 (1971), the Interstate Commerce Commission was authorized to promulgate regulations regarding the transportation of corrosive liquids, and it was a crime to "knowingly violat[e] any such regulation." 18 U. S. C. § 834(f) (1970 ed.). Viewing the word "regulations" as "a shorthand designation for specific acts or omissions which violate the Act," 402 U. S., at 562, we adhered to the traditional rule that ignorance of the law is not a defense. The violation had to be "knowing" in that the defendant had to know that he was transporting corrosive liquids and not, for example, merely water. Id., at 563-564. But there was no requirement that
In Boyce Motor Lines, Inc. v. United States, 342 U.S. 337 (1952), the Court considered a statute that punished anyone who "knowingly violates" a regulation requiring trucks transporting dangerous items to avoid congested areas where possible. In rejecting a vagueness challenge, the Court read "knowingly" to mean not that the driver had to be aware of the regulation, see id., at 345 (Jackson, J., dissenting), but that he had to know a safer alternative route was available. Likewise, in construing 18 U. S. C. § 1461, which punishes "[w]hoever knowingly uses the mails for the mailing . . . of anything declared by this section or section 3001(e) of Title 39 to be nonmailable," we held that the defendant need not have known that the materials were nonmailable. Hamling v. United States, 418 U.S. 87, 120-124 (1974). "To require proof of a defendant's knowledge of the legal status of the materials would permit the defendant to avoid prosecution by simply claiming that he had not brushed up on the law," and was not required by the statute. Id., at 123-124. Accord, Rosen v. United States, 161 U.S. 29 (1896). See also United States v. Freed, 401 U.S. 601 (1971); id., at 612-615 (BRENNAN, J., concurring in judgment).
In each of these cases, the statutory language lent itself to the approach adopted today if anything more readily than does § 2024(b)(1).
I wholly agree that "[t]he contention that an injury can amount to a crime only when inflicted by intention is no provincial or transient notion." Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 250 (1952); ante, at 425. But the holding of the court below is not at all inconsistent with that longstanding and important principle. Petitioner's conduct was intentional; the jury found that petitioner "realized what he was doing, and was aware of the nature of his conduct, and did not act through ignorance, mistake, or accident." App. 33 (trial court's instructions). Whether he knew which regulation he violated is beside the point.
"[W]hoever knowingly uses, transfers, acquires, alters, or possesses coupons or authorization cards in any manner not authorized by this chapter or the regulations issued pursuant to this chapter shall, if such coupons or authorization cards are of a value of $100 or more, be guilty of a felony and shall, upon the first conviction thereof, be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned for not more than five years, or both, and, upon the second and any subsequent conviction thereof, shall be imprisoned for not less than six months nor more than five years and may also be fined not more than $10,000 or, if such coupons or authorization cards are of a value of less than $100, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and, upon the first conviction thereof, shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both, and upon the second and any subsequent conviction thereof, shall be imprisoned for not more than one year and may also be fined not more than $1,000. In addition to such penalties, any person convicted of a felony or misdemeanor violation under this subsection may be suspended by the court from participation in the food stamp program for an additional period of up to eighteen months consecutive to that period of suspension mandated by section 2015(b)(1) of this title."
"The crime charged in this case is a serious crime which requires proof of specific intent before the defendant can be convicted. Specific intent, as the term implies, means more than the general intent to commit the act. To establish specific intent the government must prove that the defendant knowingly did an act which the law forbids, purposely intending to violate the law. Such intent may be determined from all the facts and circumstances surrounding the case."
We have also recognized that the mental element in criminal law encompasses more than the two possibilities of "specific" and "general" intent. See United States v. Bailey, supra, at 403-407; United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 438 U.S. 422, 444-445 (1978); United States v. Freed, supra, at 613 (BRENNAN, J., concurring in judgment). The Model Penal Code, for instance, recognizes four mental states — purpose, knowledge, recklessness, and negligence. ALI, Model Penal Code § 2.02 (Prop. Off. Draft 1962). In this case, petitioner argues that with respect to the element at issue, knowledge is required. The Government contends that no mental state is required with respect to that element.
"Still further difficulty arises from the ambiguity which frequently exists concerning what the words or phrases in question modify. What, for instance, does `knowingly' modify in a sentence from a `blue sky' law criminal statute punishing one who `knowingly sells a security without a permit' from the securities commissioner? To be guilty must the seller of a security without a permit know only that what he is doing constitutes a sale, or must he also know that the thing he sells is a security, or must he also know that he has no permit to sell the security he sells? As a matter of grammar the statute is ambiguous; it is not at all clear how far down the sentence the word `knowingly' is intended to travel — whether it modifies `sells,' or `sells a security,' or `sells a security without a permit.' " W. LaFave & A. Scott, Criminal Law § 27 (1972).
"Whoever presents, or causes to be presented, coupons for payment or redemption of the value of $100 or more, knowing the same to have been received, transferred, or used in any manner in violation of the provisions of this chapter or the regulations issued pursuant to this chapter, shall be guilty of a felony and, upon the first conviction thereof, shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned for not more than five years, or both, and, upon the second and any subsequent conviction thereof, shall be imprisoned for not less than one year nor more than five years and may also be fined not more than $10,000, or, if such coupons are of a value of less than $100, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon the first conviction thereof, shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both, and, upon the second and any subsequent conviction thereof, shall be imprisoned for not more than one year and may also be fined not more than $1,000. In addition to such penalties, any person convicted of a felony or misdemeanor violation under this subsection may be suspended by the court from participation in the food stamp program for an additional period of up to eighteen months consecutive to that period of suspension mandated by section 2015(b)(1) of this title."
It is worth noting that the penalties under this section are virtually identical to those provided in § 2024(b)(1). See n. 1, supra.
The Government similarly points to the legislative history of the 1977 Act that substantially revised the previous food stamp program. The House Report explained that "[a]ny unauthorized use, transfer, acquisition, alteration, or possession of food stamps . . . by any individual . . . may be prosecuted under the provisions of" § 2024(b)(1). H. R. Rep. No. 95-464, p. 376 (1977). The Report continued that "under [§ 2024(c)]. . . the same penalties are prescribed for whoever presents or causes to be presented food stamps (for payment or redemption) knowing that they have been received, transferred or used in any manner violating the provisions of the Act or regulations implementing the Act." Ibid. Presumably relying on the omission of the word "knowingly" in its description of § 2024(b)(1), the Government argues that this language indicates that "the difference between Sections 2024(b) and 2024(c) was plainly visible to Congress and that Congress was fully aware of the scope of the former provision. . . ." Brief for United States 20. We do not believe that the omission of the word "knowingly" is evidence that Congress devoted its attention to the issue before the Court today; it is as likely that the Committee, unaware of the problem, simply did not realize the need to discuss the mental element needed for a conviction under § 2024(b)(1). Moreover, the omission of the word "knowingly" in the description of § 2024(b)(1) would indicate, if anything, an intent to dispense with any requirement of knowledge in § 2024(b)(1), an intent that is at odds with the language of the statute and the interpretation urged even by the Government today. The omission of the word "knowingly" thus provides no support for the argument that Congress intended not to require knowledge of illegality in a § 2024(b)(1) prosecution.
"Whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States knowingly and willfully falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact, or makes any false, fictitious or fraudulent statements or representations, or makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or entry, shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both."
For similar reasons, I am unmoved by the specter of criminal liability for someone who is mistakenly mailed food stamps and throws them out, see ante, at 426-427, and do not think the hypothetical offers much of a guide to congressional intent. We should proceed on the assumption that Congress had in mind the run-of-the-mill situation, not its most bizarre mutation. Arguments that presume wildly unreasonable conduct by Government officials are by their nature unconvincing, and reliance on them is likely to do more harm than good. United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277, 284-285 (1943). No rule, including that adopted by the Court today, is immune from such contrived defects.