498 U.S. 103 (1990), 89-964, Moskal v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 89-964
Citation:498 U.S. 103, 111 S.Ct. 461, 112 L.Ed.2d 449, 59 U.S.L.W. 4025
Party Name:Moskal v. United States
Case Date:December 03, 1990
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 103

498 U.S. 103 (1990)

111 S.Ct. 461, 112 L.Ed.2d 449, 59 U.S.L.W. 4025



United States

No. 89-964

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 3, 1990

Argued Oct. 1, 1990




Petitioner participated in a "title washing" scheme in which automobile titles that had been altered to reflect rolled-back odometer mileage figures were sent from Pennsylvania to Virginia. After Virginia authorities, unaware of the alterations, issued Virginia titles incorporating the false figures, Moskal received the "washed" titles in Pennsylvania, where they were used in connection with car sales to unsuspecting buyers. Moskal was convicted of receiving two washed titles under 18 U.S.C. § 2314, which prohibits the knowing transportation of "falsely made, forged, altered, or counterfeited securities" in interstate commerce. (Emphasis added.) In affirming Moskal's conviction, the Court of Appeals rejected his contention that, because the washed titles were genuine, inasmuch as the Virginia officials who issued them did not know of the falsity, the titles therefore were not "falsely made."

Held: A person who receives genuine vehicle titles, knowing that they incorporate fraudulently tendered odometer readings, receives those titles knowing them to have been "falsely made" in violation of § 2314. Pp. 106-118.

(a) Moskal misconstrues the doctrine of lenity when he contends that because it is possible to read § 2314 as applying only to forged or counterfeited securities, and because some courts have so read it, this Court should simply resolve the issue in his favor under that doctrine. The doctrine applies only to those situations in which a reasonable doubt persists about a statute's intended scope even after resort to the language and structure, legislative history, and motivating policies of the statute. Such factors demonstrate that § 2314 unambiguously applies to Moskal's conduct. Pp. 106-108.

(b) Both the plain meaning of the words "falsely made" and the legislative purpose underlying them provide ample support for applying § 2314 to a fraudulent scheme for washing vehicle titles. The quoted words are broad enough, on their face, to encompass washed titles containing fraudulently tendered odometer readings, since such titles are made to contain false, or incorrect, information. The fact that the state officials responsible for issuing such titles did not know that they were incorporating false readings is irrelevant, since § 2314 liability depends on transporting the "falsely made" security with unlawful or fraudulent intent,

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and not on the scienter of the person who physically produces the security. Moskal's construction of § 2314 as excluding any security that is "genuine" or valid deprives the "falsely made" phrase of any meaning independent of the statutory terms "forged" and "counterfeited," and therefore violates the established principle that a court should give effect, if possible, to every clause or word of a statute. That "falsely made" encompasses genuine documents containing false information is also supported by § 2314's purpose of curbing the type of trafficking in fraudulent securities that depends for its success on the exploitation of interstate commerce to avoid detection by individual states, such as a title washing operation. The fact that the legislative history contains references to counterfeit securities but not to odometer rollback schemes does not require a different conclusion, [111 S.Ct. 463] since, in choosing the broad phrase "falsely made, forged, altered, or counterfeited securities," Congress sought to reach a class of frauds that exploited interstate commerce. This Court has never required that every permissible application of a statute be expressly referred to in its legislative history. Moreover, the Court's § 2314 precedents specifically reject constructions that limit the statute to instances of fraud, rather than the class of fraud encompassed by its language. See United States v. Sheridan, 329 U.S. 379, 390, 391; McElroy v. United States, 455 U.S. 642, 655, 656, 658. Pp. 108-114.

(c) The foregoing reading of § 2314 is not precluded by the principle of statutory construction requiring that, where a federal criminal statute uses a common law term of established meaning without otherwise defining it, the term must generally be given that meaning. Although, at the time Congress enacted the relevant clause of § 2314, many courts had interpreted "falsely made" to exclude documents that were false only in content, that interpretation was not universal, other courts having taken divergent views. Where no fixed usage existed at common law, it is more appropriate to inquire which of the common law readings of the term best accords with the overall purpose of the statute, rather than simply to assume, for example, that Congress adopted the reading that was followed by the largest number of common law courts. Moreover, Congress' general purpose in enacting a law may prevail over the "common law meaning" rule of construction. Since the position of those common law courts that define "falsely made" to exclude documents that are false only in content does not accord with Congress' broad purpose in enacting § 2314 -- namely to criminalize trafficking in fraudulent securities that exploits interstate commerce -- it is far more likely that Congress adopted the common law view of "falsely made" that encompasses "genuine" documents that are false in content. Pp. 114-118.

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(d) Moskal's policy arguments for narrowly construing "falsely made" are unpersuasive. First, there is no evidence to suggest that States will deem washed titles automatically invalid -- thereby creating chaos in the stream of automobile commerce -- simply because federal law punishes those responsible for introducing such fraudulent securities into commerce. Second, construing "falsely made" to apply to securities containing false information will not criminalize a broad range of "innocent" conduct. A person who transports such securities in interstate commerce violates § 2314 only if he does so with unlawful or fraudulent intent and if the false information is itself material, and conduct that satisfies these tests is not "innocent." P. 118.

888 F.2d 283 (CA3 1989), affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which O'CONNOR and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, post, p. 119. SOUTER, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether a person who knowingly procures genuine vehicle titles that incorporate fraudulently tendered odometer readings receives those titles "knowing [them] to have been falsely made." 18 U.S.C. § 2314 (emphasis added). We conclude that he does.


Petitioner Raymond Moskal participated in a "title washing" scheme. Moskal's confederates purchased used cars in Pennsylvania, rolled back the [111 S.Ct. 464] cars' odometers, and altered their titles to reflect those lower mileage figures. The altered titles were then sent to an accomplice in Virginia, who submitted them to Virginia authorities. Those officials,

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unaware of the alterations, issued Virginia titles incorporating the false mileage figures. The "washed" titles were then sent back to Pennsylvania, where they were used in connection with car sales to unsuspecting buyers. Moskal played two roles in this scheme: he sent altered titles from Pennsylvania to Virginia; he received "washed" titles when they were returned.

The Government indicted and convicted Moskal under 18 U.S.C. § 2314 for receiving two washed titles, each recording a mileage figure that was 30,000 miles lower than the true number. Section 2314 imposes fines or imprisonment on anyone who,

with unlawful or fraudulent intent, transports in interstate . . . commerce any falsely made, forged, altered, or counterfeited securities . . . , knowing the same to have been falsely made, forged, altered or counterfeited.

On appeal, Moskal maintained that the washed titles were nonetheless genuine, and thus not "falsely made." The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that

"`the purpose of the term "falsely made" was to . . . prohibit the fraudulent introduction into commerce of falsely made documents regardless of the precise method by which the introducer or his confederates effected their lack of authenticity.'"

United States v. Davis, 888 F.2d 283, 285 (CA3 1989), quoting United States v. Mitchell, 588 F.2d 481, 484 (CA5), cert. denied, 442 U.S. 940 (1979), quoting United States v. Huntley, 535 F.2d 1400, 1402 (CA5 1976), cert. denied, 430 U.S. 929 (1977).

Notwithstanding the narrowness of this issue, we granted certiorari to resolve a divergence of opinion among the courts of appeals. 494 U.S. (1990). See United States v. Sparrow, 635 F.2d 794 (CA10 1980) (en banc), cert. denied, 450 U.S. 1004 (1981) (washed automobile titles are not "falsely made" within the meaning of § 2314). We now affirm petitioner's conviction.


As indicated, § 2314 prohibits the knowing transportation of "falsely made, forged, altered or counterfeited securities"

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in interstate commerce.[1] Moskal acknowledges that he could have been charged with violating this provision when he sent the Pennsylvania titles to Virginia, since those titles were "altered" within the meaning of § 2314. But he insists that he did not violate the provision in subsequently receiving the washed titles from Virginia because, although he was participating in a fraud (and...

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