JUSTICE GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.
Federal law requires banks and other financial institutions to file reports with the Secretary of the Treasury whenever they are involved in a cash transaction that exceeds $10,000. 31 U. S. C. § 5313; 31 CFR § 103.22(a) (1993). It is illegal to "structure" transactions—i. e., to break up a single transaction above the reporting threshold into two or more separate transactions—for the purpose of evading a financial institution's reporting requirement. 31 U. S. C. § 5324. "A person willfully violating" this antistructuring provision is subject to criminal penalties. § 5322. This case presents a question on which Courts of Appeals have divided: Does a defendant's purpose to circumvent a bank's reporting obligation suffice to sustain a conviction for "willfully violating" the antistructuring provision?
On the evening of October 20, 1988, defendant-petitioner Waldemar Ratzlaf ran up a debt of $160,000 playing blackjack at the High Sierra Casino in Reno, Nevada. The casino gave him one week to pay. On the due date, Ratzlaf returned to the casino with cash of $100,000 in hand. A casino official informed Ratzlaf that all transactions involving more than $10,000 in cash had to be reported to state and federal authorities. The official added that the casino could accept a cashier's check for the full amount due without triggering any reporting requirement. The casino helpfully placed a limousine at Ratzlaf's disposal, and assigned an employee to accompany him to banks in the vicinity. Informed that banks, too, are required to report cash transactions in excess of $10,000, Ratzlaf purchased cashier's checks, each for less than $10,000 and each from a different bank. He delivered these checks to the High Sierra Casino.
Based on this endeavor, Ratzlaf was charged with "structuring transactions" to evade the banks' obligation to report cash transactions exceeding $10,000; this conduct, the indictment alleged, violated 31 U. S. C. §§ 5322(a) and 5324(3). The trial judge instructed the jury that the Government had to prove defendant's knowledge of the banks' reporting obligation and his attempt to evade that obligation, but did not
Ratzlaf maintained on appeal that he could not be convicted of "willfully violating" the antistructuring law solely on the basis of his knowledge that a financial institution must report currency transactions in excess of $10,000 and his intention to avoid such reporting. To gain a conviction for "willful" conduct, he asserted, the Government must prove he was aware of the illegality of the "structuring" in which he engaged. The Ninth Circuit upheld the trial court's construction of the legislation and affirmed Ratzlaf's conviction. 976 F.2d 1280 (1992). We granted certiorari, 507 U.S. 1050 (1993), and now conclude that, to give effect to the statutory "willfulness" specification, the Government had to prove Ratzlaf knew the structuring he undertook was unlawful. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
Congress enacted the Currency and Foreign Transactions Reporting Act (Bank Secrecy Act) in 1970, Pub. L. 91-2508, Tit. II, 84 Stat. 1118, in response to increasing use of banks and other institutions as financial intermediaries by persons engaged in criminal activity. The Act imposes a variety of reporting requirements on individuals and institutions regarding foreign and domestic financial transactions. See 31 U. S. C. §§ 5311-5325. The reporting requirement relevant here, § 5313(a), applies to domestic financial transactions. Section 5313(a) reads:
To deter circumvention of this reporting requirement, Congress enacted an antistructuring provision, 31 U. S. C. § 5324, as part of the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986, Pub. L. 99-570, Tit. I, Subtit. H, § 1354(a), 100 Stat. 3207-22.
The criminal enforcement provision at issue, 31 U. S. C. § 5322(a), sets out penalties for "[a] person willfully violating," inter alia, the antistructuring provision. Section 5322(a) reads:
Section 5324 forbids structuring transactions with a "purpose of evading the reporting requirements of section 5313(a)." Ratzlaf admits that he structured cash transactions, and that he did so with knowledge of, and a purpose to avoid, the banks' duty to report currency transactions in excess of $10,000. The statutory formulation (§ 5322) under which Ratzlaf was prosecuted, however, calls for proof of "willful[ness]" on the actor's part. The trial judge in Ratzlaf's case, with the Ninth Circuit's approbation, treated § 5322(a)'s "willfulness" requirement essentially as surplusage—as words of no consequence.
"Willful," this Court has recognized, is a "word of many meanings," and "its construction [is] often... influenced by its context." Spies v. United States, 317 U.S. 492, 497 (1943). Accordingly, we view §§ 5322(a) and 5324(3) mindful of the complex of provisions in which they are embedded. In this light, we count it significant that § 5322(a)'s omnibus "willfulness" requirement, when applied to other provisions in the same subchapter, consistently has been read by the Courts of Appeals to require both "knowledge of the reporting requirement" and a "specific intent to commit the crime," i. e., "a purpose to disobey the law." See United States v. Bank of New England, N. A., 821 F.2d 844, 854-859 (CA1 1987) ("willful violation" of § 5313's reporting requirement for cash transactions over $10,000 requires "voluntary, intentional, and bad purpose to disobey the law"); United States v. Eisenstein, 731 F.2d 1540, 1543 (CA11 1984) ("willful violation" of § 5313's reporting requirement for cash transactions over $10,000 requires "`proof of the defendant's knowledge of the reporting requirement and his specific intent to commit the crime'") (quoting United States v. Granda, 565 F.2d 922, 926 (CA5 1978)).
Notable in this regard are 31 U. S. C. § 5314,
The United States urges, however, that § 5324 violators, by their very conduct, exhibit a purpose to do wrong, which suffices to show "willfulness":
Undoubtedly there are bad men who attempt to elude official reporting requirements in order to hide from Government inspectors such criminal activity as laundering drug money or tax evasion.
Courts have noted "many occasions" on which persons, without violating any law, may structure transactions "in order to avoid the impact of some regulation or tax." United States v. Aversa, 762 F.Supp. 441, 446 (NH 1991), aff'd in part, 984 F.2d 493 (CA1 1993). This Court, over a century ago, supplied an illustration:
In current days, as an amicus noted, countless taxpayers each year give a gift of $10,000 on December 31 and an identical gift the next day, thereby legitimately avoiding the taxable gifts reporting required by 26 U. S. C. § 2503(b).
In light of these examples, we are unpersuaded by the argument that structuring is so obviously "evil" or inherently "bad" that the "willfulness" requirement is satisfied irrespective of the defendant's knowledge of the illegality of structuring. Had Congress wished to dispense with the requirement, it could have furnished the appropriate instruction.
In § 5322, Congress subjected to criminal penalties only those "willfully violating" § 5324, signaling its intent to require for conviction proof that the defendant knew not only
We do not dishonor the venerable principle that ignorance of the law generally is no defense to a criminal charge. See Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 199 (1991); Barlow v. United States, 7 Pet. 404, 410-412 (1833) (Story, J.). In particular contexts, however, Congress may decree otherwise. That, we hold, is what Congress has done with respect to 31 U. S. C. § 5322(a) and the provisions it controls. To convict Ratzlaf of the crime with which he was charged, violation of 31 U. S. C. §§ 5322(a) and 5324(3), the jury had to find he knew the structuring in which he engaged was unlawful.
It is so ordered.
On October 27, 1988, petitioner Waldemar Ratzlaf
Ratzlaf, along with his wife and a casino employee, then proceeded to visit several banks in and around Stateline, Nevada, and South Lake Tahoe, California, purchasing separate cashier's checks, each in the amount of $9,500. At some banks the Ratzlafs attempted to buy two checks—one for each of them—and were told that a report would have to be filed; on those occasions they canceled the transactions. Ratzlaf then returned to the casino and paid off $76,000 of his debt in cashier's checks. A few weeks later, Ratzlaf gave three persons cash to purchase additional cashier's checks in amounts less than $10,000. The Ratzlafs themselves also bought five more such checks in the course of a week.
A jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that Ratzlaf knew of the financial institutions' duty to report cash transactions in excess of $10,000 and that he structured transactions for the specific purpose of evading the reporting requirements.
The Court today, however, concludes that these findings are insufficient for a conviction under 31 U. S. C. §§ 5322(a) and 5324(3),
"The general rule that ignorance of the law or a mistake of law is no defense to criminal prosecution is deeply rooted in the American legal system." Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 199 (1991). The Court has applied this common-law rule "in numerous cases construing criminal statutes." Ibid., citing United States v. International Minerals & Chemical Corp., 402 U.S. 558 (1971); Hamling v. United States, 418 U.S. 87, 119-124 (1974); and Boyce Motor Lines, Inc. v. United States, 342 U.S. 337 (1952).
Thus, the term "willfully" in criminal law generally "refers to consciousness of the act but not to consciousness that the act is unlawful." Cheek, 498 U. S., at 209 (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment); see also Browder v. United States, 312 U.S. 335, 341 (1941); Potter v. United States, 155 U.S. 438, 446 (1894); American Surety Co. of New York v. Sullivan, 7 F.2d 605, 606 (CA2 1925) (L. Hand, J.) ("[T]he word `willful' ... means no more than that the person charged with the duty knows what he is doing," not that "he must suppose that he is breaking the law"); American Law Institute, Model Penal Code § 2.02(8) (1985) ("A requirement that an offense be committed wilfully is satisfied if a person acts knowingly with respect to the material elements of the offense, unless a purpose to impose further requirements appears").
As the majority explains, 31 U. S. C. § 5322(a), originally enacted in 1970, imposes criminal penalties upon "person[s] willfully violating this subchapter." The subchapter (entitled "Records and Reports on Monetary Instruments Transactions") contains several different reporting requirements, including § 5313, which requires financial institutions to file reports for cash transactions over an amount prescribed by regulation; § 5314, which requires reports for transactions with foreign financial agencies; and § 5316, which requires
Unlike other provisions of the subchapter, the antistructuring provision identifies the purpose that is required for a § 5324 violation: "evading the reporting requirements." The offense of structuring, therefore, requires (1) knowledge of a financial institution's reporting requirements, and (2) the structuring of a transaction for the purpose of evading those requirements. These elements define a violation that is "willful" as that term is commonly interpreted. The majority's additional requirement that an actor have actual knowledge that structuring is prohibited strays from the statutory text, as well as from our precedents interpreting criminal statutes generally and "willfulness" in particular.
The Court reasons that the interpretation of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and that of nine other Circuits,
The majority also contends that § 5322(a)'s willfulness element, when applied to the subchapter's other provisions, has been read by the Courts of Appeals to require knowledge of and a purpose to disobey the law. See ante, at 141-142. In fact, the cases to which the majority refers stand for the more subtle proposition that a willful violation requires knowledge of the pertinent reporting requirements and a purpose to avoid compliance with them.
The Court next concludes that its interpretation of "willfully" is warranted because structuring is not inherently "nefarious." See ante, at 144. It is true that the Court, on occasion, has imposed a knowledge-of-illegality requirement upon criminal statutes to ensure that the defendant acted with a wrongful purpose. See, e. g., Liparota v. United
In interpreting federal criminal tax statutes, this Court has defined the term "willfully" as requiring the "`voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty.' " Cheek v. United States, 498 U. S., at 200, quoting United States v. Bishop, 412 U.S. 346, 360 (1973); see also United States v. Murdock, 290 U.S. 389, 394-396 (1933). Our rule in the tax area, however, is an "exception to the traditional rule," applied "largely due to the complexity of the tax laws." Cheek, 498 U. S., at 200; see also Browder v. United States, 312 U. S., at 341-342. The rule is inapplicable here, where, far from being complex, the provisions involved are perhaps among the simplest in the United States Code.
Although I believe the statutory language is clear in light of our precedents, the legislative history confirms that Congress intended to require knowledge of (and a purpose to evade) the reporting requirements but not specific knowledge of the illegality of structuring.
Before 1986, the reporting requirements included no provision explicitly prohibiting the structuring of transactions to evade the reporting requirements. The Government attempted to combat purposeful evasion of the reporting requirements through 18 U. S. C. § 1001, which applies to anyone who "knowingly and willfully falsifies, conceals or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact" within the jurisdiction of a federal agency, and 18 U. S. C. § 2(b), which applies to anyone who "willfully causes an act to be done which if directly performed by him or another would be an offense" under federal law. Some Courts of Appeals upheld application of those criminal statutes where a report would have been filed but for the defendant's purposeful structuring. See, e. g., United States v. Tobon-Builes, 706 F.2d 1092, 1096-1101 (CA11 1983); United States v. Heyman, 794 F.2d 788, 790-793 (CA2), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 989 (1986). As the leading case explained, a defendant's willfulness was established if he "knew about the currency reporting requirements and . . . purposely sought to prevent the financial institutions from filing required reports . . . by structuring his transactions as multiple smaller transactions under $10,000." Tobon-Builes, 706 F. 2d, at 1101.
Other courts rejected imposition of criminal liability for structuring under §§ 1001 and 2(b), concluding either that the
Congress enacted the antistructuring provision in 1986 "to fill a loophole in the Bank Secrecy Act caused by" the latter three decisions, which "refused to apply the sanctions of [the Act] to transactions `structured' to evade the act's $10,000 cash reporting requirement." S. Rep. No. 99-433, p. 7 (1986). As explained by the Report of the Senate Judiciary Committee:
See also H. R. Rep. No. 99-746, pp. 18-19, and n. 1 (1986). Congress' stated purpose to "codify Tobon-Builes" reveals its intent to incorporate Tobon-Builes' standard for a willful violation, which required knowledge of the reporting requirements and a purpose to evade them. Nothing in Tobon-Builes suggests that knowledge of the illegality of one's conduct is required.
The Committee's specification of the requisite intent as only the intent to prevent a bank from filing reports confirms that Congress did not contemplate a departure from the general rule that knowledge of illegality is not an essential element of a criminal offense.
A recent amendment to § 5324 further supports the interpretation of the court below. In 1992, Congress enacted the Annunzio-Wylie Anti-Money Laundering Act, creating a parallel antistructuring provision for the reporting requirements under 31 U. S. C. § 5316, which governs international monetary transportation. See Pub. L. 102-550, Tit. XV, § 1525(a), 106 Stat. 4064.
The 1992 amendment's replication of the original antistructuring provision's language strongly suggests that Congress intended to preserve the then-uniform interpretation of the scienter requirement of § 5324. See Keene Corp. v. United States, 508 U.S. 200, 212-213 (1993). At the very least, then, today's decision poses a dilemma for any attempt to reconcile the two parallel antistructuring provisions now codified in § 5324: Courts must either ignore clear evidence of legislative intent as to the newly added antistructuring provision or interpret its identical language differently from the antistructuring provision at issue in this case.
Finally, it cannot be ignored that the majority's interpretation of § 5324 as a practical matter largely nullifies the effect of that provision. In codifying the currency transaction reporting requirements in 1970, "Congress recognized the importance of reports of large and unusual currency transactions in ferreting out criminal activity." California Bankers Assn. v. Shultz, 416 U.S. 21, 38 (1974). Congress enacted the antistructuring law to close what it perceived as
The petitioner in this case was informed by casino officials that a transaction involving more than $10,000 in cash must be reported, was informed by the various banks he visited that banks are required to report cash transactions in excess of $10,000, and then purchased $76,000 in cashier's checks, each for less than $10,000 and each from a different bank. Petitioner Ratzlaf, obviously not a person of limited intelligence, was anything but uncomprehending as he traveled from bank to bank converting his bag of cash to cashier's checks in $9,500 bundles. I am convinced that his actions constituted a "willful" violation of the antistructuring provision embodied in 31 U. S. C. § 5324. As a result of today's decision, Waldemar Ratzlaf—to use an old phrase—will be "laughing all the way to the bank."
The majority's interpretation of the antistructuring provision is at odds with the statutory text, the intent of Congress, and the fundamental principle that knowledge of illegality is not required for a criminal act. Now Congress must try again to fill a hole it rightly felt it had filled before. I dissent.
But the legislative history cited by the United States is hardly crystalline. The reference to United States v. Tobon-Builes, 706 F.2d 1092 (CA11 1983), is illustrative. In that case, the defendant was charged under 18 U. S. C. § 1001, the False Statements Act, with "conceal[ing] . . . the existence, source, and transfer of approximately $185,200 in cash by purchasing approximately twenty-one cashier's checks in amounts less than $10,000 [and] using a variety of names, including false names . . . ." 706 F. 2d, at 1094. The defendant's "main contention," rejected by the Eleventh Circuit, was that he "could not have violated the concealment prohibition of § 1001 because he was under no legal duty to report any of his cash transactions." Id., at 1096. No "ignorance of the law" defense was asserted. Congress may indeed have "codified" that decision in § 5324 by "expressly subject[ing] to potential liability a person who causes or attempts to cause a financial institution to fail to file a required report or who causes a financial institution to file a required report that contains material omissions or misstatements of fact," S. Rep. No. 99-433, at 22, but it appears that Congress did so in the first and second subsections of § 5324, which track the Senate Report language almost verbatim. See 31 U. S. C. § 5324(1) (no person shall "cause or attempt to cause a domestic financial institution to fail to file a report required under section 5313(a)"); 31 U. S. C. § 5324(2) (no person shall "cause or attempt to cause a domestic financial institution to file a report required under section 5313(a) that contains a material omission or misstatement of fact"). Indeed, the Senate Report stated that "[i]n addition" to codifying Tobon-Builes, § 5324 would also "create the offense of structuring a transaction to evade the reporting requirements." S. Rep. No. 99-433, at 22. The relevance of Tobon-Builes to the proper construction of § 5324(3), the subsection under which Ratzlaf was convicted, is not evident.
The dissent, see post, at 161, features a House Report issued in 1991 in connection with an unenacted version of the Annunzio-Wylie Anti-Money Laundering Act. We do not find that Report, commenting on a bill that did not pass, a secure indicator of congressional intent at any time, and it surely affords no reliable guide to Congress' intent in 1986. See Oscar Mayer & Co. v. Evans, 441 U.S. 750, 758 (1979) (cautioning against giving weight to "history" written years after the passage of a statute).
The only Court of Appeals to adopt a contrary interpretation is the First Circuit, and even that court allows "reckless disregard" of one's legal duty to support a conviction for structuring. See United States v. Aversa, 984 F.2d 493, 502 (1993) (en banc).
The majority expresses concern about the potential application of the antistructuring law to a business operator who deposits cash twice each week to reduce the risk of an IRS audit. See ante, at 144-145. First, it is not at all clear that the statute would apply in this situation. If a person has legitimate business reasons for conducting frequent cash transactions, or if the transactions genuinely can be characterized as separate, rather than artificially structured, then the person is not engaged in "structuring" for the purpose of "evasion." See United States v. Brown, 954 F. 2d, at 1571; S. Rep. No. 99-433, p. 22 (1986). Even if application of § 5324 were theoretically possible in this extreme situation, the example would not establish prohibition of a "broad range of apparently innocent conduct" as in Liparota, 471 U. S., at 426, and it would not justify reading into the statute a knowledge-of-illegality requirement.
The majority misreads the Senate Report as stating that § 5324 creates the structuring offense "`[i]n addition' to codifying Tobon-Builes." Ante, at 148, n. 17. The phrase "in addition" plainly refers to the previous sentence in the Report, which states that § 5324 "would expressly subject to potential liability a person who causes or attempts to cause a financial institution to fail to file a required report or who causes a financial institution to file a required report that contains material omissions or misstatements of fact." S. Rep. No. 99-433, at 22. The "codification" of Tobon-Builes encompasses both sentences, and thus all three subsections of the original § 5324. In any event, there is no doubt that the Report's reference to "codifying Tobon-Builes" is a reference to the creation of the antistructuring offense, particularly given that Tobon-Builes expressly imposed criminal liability for "structuring" transactions. 706 F. 2d, at 1101.
Even more direct evidence of Congress' intent to incorporate the Tobon-Builes scienter standard is found in the response to a question from Senator D'Amato, the Senate sponsor of the antistructuring provision. He asked Deputy Assistant Attorney General Knapp and Assistant United States Attorney Sun: "Assuming that [the antistructuring] provision had been on the books, could you have demonstrated a willful violation in the Anzalone, Varbel and Denemark cases?" The written response stated: "Assuming that the terms of [the antistructuring provision] were in effect at the time of the conduct described in Anzalone, Varbel, and Denemark, the result would, or should have been markedly different. Statements from defendants in those cases indicated that the structuring conduct was purposely undertaken to evade the reporting requirements of Title 31. As this is expressly what is prohibited under [the antistructuring provision], a willful violation . . . would have been demonstrated." Hearing on S. 571 and S. 2306 before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, 99th Cong., 2d Sess., at 141-142.