Statutory Interpretation: A Criminal Statute That Begins With The Word ‘Knowingly’ Makes That Mens Rea Applicable To Every Element Of The Crime
U.S v. Smith
United States Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit
756 F.3d 1070
Decided on: June 27, 2014
Blog By: Stephen N. Preziosi Esq., Criminal Appeals Attorney
Statutory Interpretation Is Reviewed By Appellate Courts Using De Novo Standard Of Review
Issue: The issue of this case is one of statutory interpretation where Defendant pointed a laser beam at an aircraft the issue became whether the statutory language “knowingly aimed” covers an offender who knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft requires that a Defendant intended that the laser beam strike the targeted aircraft or whether the statute requires only that the offender direct the beam toward the target.
Summary: Defendant was indicted of knowingly aiming a laser pointer’s beam at the police helicopter in violation of 18 U.S.C §39A. The day before trial, Defendant submitted proposed jury instructions, including a theory-of-defense instruction proposing he could not have ‘knowingly’ aimed the beam at the aircraft if he mistakenly believed that the laser beam could not travel the distance necessary to reach the aircraft.
The District Court concluded that § 39 A is violated whenever a person points a laser pointer at what the person knows to be an aircraft, regardless of that person’s belief, whether it be reasonable or not, that the laser pointer will not reach the aircraft of affect its crew. The District Court noted the term knowingly clearly applies to what the laser is pointed at—that is, the Defendant has to know that he’s aiming a laser beam at an aircraft. The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit confirmed.
Holding: The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that § 39A(a)’s requirement that the laser beam be a knowingly aimed does not require an offender to intend the beam to strike the aircraft or flight path in question.
§39A covers an offender who knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft. The statute is violated whenever a person points a laser pointer at what the person knows to be an aircraft, regardless of that persons belief, whether it be reasonable or not, that the laser pointer will not reach the aircraft or affect its crew.
Facts: Defendant Smith was indicted of knowingly aiming a laser pointer’s beam at the police helicopter in violation of 18 U.S.C §39A(a).
The Eighth Circuit relied on plain text and common usage and concluded that §39A(a)’s requirement that the laser beam be knowingly aimed does not require an offender to intend the beam to strike the aircraft or flight path in question. The Eight Circuit affirmed.
Legal Analysis: The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that this appeal targets the District Court’s definition of the phrase “knowingly aim” in 18 U.S.C. Section §39A(a).
§39A(a) imposes criminal liability on anyone who knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, or at the flight path of such an aircraft.
First, the District Court noted the term ‘knowingly’ clearly applies to what the laser is pointed at– that is, the Defendant has to know that he’s aiming a laser beam at an aircraft as opposed to believing the target is a shooting star or a satellite.
The District Court then read ‘to aim at’ as simply meaning ‘to point at’, reasoning this definition was supported by the statutory text’s common meaning, its legislative history, and the circumstances underlying the statute’s enactment.
Here, Defendant contends this language requires a Defendant to knowingly point a laser beam intending the beam to strike the targeted object, where as the Government defends the District Court’s understanding by arguing an offender need only direct the beam towards the target.
The Eighth Circuit held that they review de novo this question of statutory interpretation. Giving words their ordinary, contemporary, common meaning unless they are otherwise defined in the statue itself, Hennepin Cnty. v. Fed. Nat’l Mortg. Ass’n. 742 F.3d 818, 821 8th Cir.2014.
Defendant argues that the District Court only applied ‘knowingly’ to the ‘aircraft’ element of §39A and did not apply ‘knowingly’ to the ‘aim the beam of a laser pointer at’ element.
The Eighth Circuit held that the District Court never suggested ‘knowingly’ modifies only the aircraft element but instead recognized there was no question the mens rea requirement modified the aircraft element and then moved on to explain the real task at hand was determining how knowingly modifies aims and, more importantly, what Congress meant by the word ‘aim.’
Thus, contrary to Defendant’s contention, the District Court correctly recognized ‘knowingly’ modifies both the ‘aim’ and ‘aircraft’ elements.
The Eighth Circuit held that a phrase in a criminal statute that introduces the elements of a crime with the word ‘knowingly’ as applying that word to each element, unless special contexts or background circumstances call for a different reading, Flores-Figueroa v. United States, 556 U.S. 646, 652, 129 S.Ct. 1888. 173 l.e.D.2D 853. Nor does the District Court’s interpretation of ‘to aim at–that is, ‘to point at’—wash away the ‘knowingly’ requirement.
Under the District Court’s interpretation, ‘knowingly’ still modifies ‘aim’ to require that an offender understand he or she is pointing or directing the laser’s beam at an aircraft regardless whether the offender intends to strike the aircraft. There is no real disagreement as to whether ‘knowingly’ modifies the ‘aim’. The Eighth Circuit held that the Defendant’s real argument, as the District Court correctly observed, comes down to the proper construction of the word ‘aim’.
Defendant argues the statute’s use of ‘aim’ unambiguously carries with it an intent to hit the object targeted. This word’s common American usage necessitates no such intent requirement.
The District Court looked to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 45 1993, which defined the verb ‘to aim’ as to point in a particular direction or at a particular object. The Eighth Circuit held, under this definition, a Defendant can ‘aim’ by directing the beam ‘at an object’ or ‘so as to hit an object.’ Also, by criminalizing the act of ‘knowingly aiming’ at an aircraft’s flight path, Congress illustrates its intent to discourage those who would direct the beam so as to harry the aircraft without necessarily intending to strike it—including the individual who knowingly directs the laser toward a recognized aircraft, but neglects to consider the power of his device or the effective range of his laser.
The rule of lenity requires a criminal statute be construed in a Defendant’s favor where, after considering text, structure, history, and purpose, there remains a grievous ambiguity or uncertainty in the statute, such that the Court of Appeals must simply guess as to what Congress intended, United States v Castleman, 572 U.S. 134 S.Ct. 1405, 1416, 188 L.Ed.2d 426 2014.
This rule is based on the need to provide fair warning in language that the common world will understand, of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed, United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 348, 92 S.Ct. 515, 30 L.Ed.2d 488 1971.
The Eight Circuit concluded, relying on plain text and common usage, that §39A(a)’s requirement that the laser beam be ‘knowingly aimed’ does not require an offender to intend the beam to strike the aircraft or flight path in question. §39A(a)’s common and ordinary meaning gave Defendant fair warning his conduct violated the law. The Eight Circuit affirmed.