What Does One Need to ‘Know’ to Commit a Federal Crime?
On July 2, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit tackled an interesting question of statutory interpretation that centered on the precise usage by Congress of the word “knowingly” in a federal criminal law that prohibits luring people under 18 years old into prostitution.
In United States v. Daniels, the appeals court was reviewing the conviction of Robert Daniels, a pimp who had induced a 14-year-old girl to become a prostitute. One of Daniels’ arguments was that he didn’t know the girl was under 18 and thus could not be convicted under the wording of the statute.
The statute provides that anyone who “knowingly persuades, induces, entices, or coerces any individual who has not attained the age of 18 years, to engage in prostitution or any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense” can be convicted of a federal crime. The question before the court was whether the adverb “knowingly” applies to the age of the person lured into prostitution, or only to the persuading, inducing, enticing or coercing. In other words, in order for someone to be guilty of the crime, does he have to know that the prostitute was under age?
The court ruled that in order to sustain a conviction, the prosecution does not have to prove that the perpetrator knew the prostitute was under 18.
The court reasoned that although in general, criminal law applies a presumption that a knowledge requirement “applies to every element in a statute,” it is also the case that laws “concerned with the protection of minors are within a special context, where that presumption is rebutted.” The goal, the court wrote, is to honor “the congressional goal of protecting minors victimized by sexual crimes.”
Delicate issues relating to the meaning of a statute are not limited to questions relating to prostitutes and pimps, of course. In statutes defining white-collar crimes such as fraud or illegal gaming, or setting forth the punishments for such crimes, there are often ambiguous terms or complicated sentence structures.
One thing that we can learn from the Daniels opinion in the 11th Circuit is that appeals courts don’t always follow strict rules of interpretation based on the placement of an adverb or of a comma. They often look at the broad purpose of the statute and the goals that Congress sought to achieve in passing it and creating the crime. It will be interesting to see how the Daniels opinion and similar cases will be applied in the white-collar context.