§ 10.05 Statutory Interpretation: What Elements Does a Mens Rea Term Modify?

§ 10.05 Statutory Interpretation: What Elements Does a Mens Rea Term Modify?108

In United States v. X-Citement Video, Inc.,109 the Supreme Court was called upon to interpret a federal statute that makes it a felony to knowingly transport, receive, or distribute in interstate or foreign commerce any visual depiction "involv[ing] the use of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct."110 The defendant did not deny that he knowingly transported and distributed sexually explicit materials in interstate commerce. He claimed, however, that he believed the person depicted in the video was an adult, i.e., he did not know that she was a minor.

The issue for the Court was whether such knowledge was required under the statute. A fairly straightforward reading of the statute suggests that the term "knowingly" modifies the conduct or result elements ("transport, receive, or distribute") of the offense. But does "knowingly" also modify the critical statutory attendant circumstance that the person depicted in the videos was underage?

There is no foolproof method for interpreting criminal statutes. The general rule is that if a statute is not clear on its face, the court will seek to interpret the statute in the manner that best gives effect to legislative intent. In determining legislative will, judges often consider the "legislative history of an act and the circumstances surrounding its adoption; earlier statutes on the same subject; the common law as it was understood at the time of the enactment of the statute; and previous interpretations of the same or similar statutes."111

Courts also consider the structure of a statute, taking into consideration rules of grammar. For example, if there is only one statutory mens rea term, and it is set out at the beginning of the statute, a court may interpret this to mean that the word modifies every actus reus element that follows it. A different result would apply, however, if the culpability term follows various actus reus elements, but precedes others, in which case the court will likely conclude that the mens rea element applies in a "forward," but not "backward" direction. For example, assume that a statute is drafted in this form: "A person is guilty of a felony if he [does X] with the intent of [causing Y and Z]." Here, the term "intent" presumably modifies Y and Z, but not X.112

Sometimes courts are reluctant to follow the most grammatical reading of a statute if such an interpretation would conflict with "background...

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