Rehaif v. United States

Citation204 L.Ed.2d 594,139 S.Ct. 2191
Decision Date21 June 2019
Docket NumberNo. 17-9560,17-9560
Parties Hamid Mohamed Ahmed Ali REHAIF, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Rosemary Cakmis, Orlando, FL, for Petitioner.

Allon Kedem, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Virginia A. Seitz, Jeffrey T. Green, Sidley Austin LLP, Washington, DC, Sarah O'Rourke Schrup, Northwestern Supreme Court Practicum, Chicago, IL, Donna Lee Elm, Federal Defender, Robert Godfrey, Rosemary Cakmis, Allison Guagliardo, Adeel Bashir, Conrad Kahn, Federal Defender Office, Orlando, FL, for Petitioner.

Noel J. Francisco, Solicitor General, Brian A. Benczkowski, Assistant Attorney General, Eric J. Feigin, Allon Kedem, Jenny C. Ellickson, Assistants to the Solicitor General, Joshua K. Handell, Attorney, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Justice BREYER delivered the opinion of the Court.

A federal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), provides that "[i]t shall be unlawful" for certain individuals to possess firearms. The provision lists nine categories of individuals subject to the prohibition, including felons and aliens who are "illegally or unlawfully in the United States." Ibid. A separate provision, § 924(a)(2), adds that anyone who "knowingly violates" the first provision shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 10 years. (Emphasis added.)

The question here concerns the scope of the word "knowingly." Does it mean that the Government must prove that a defendant knew both that he engaged in the relevant conduct (that he possessed a firearm) and also that he fell within the relevant status (that he was a felon, an alien unlawfully in this country, or the like)? We hold that the word "knowingly" applies both to the defendant's conduct and to the defendant's status. To convict a defendant, the Government therefore must show that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it.


Petitioner Hamid Rehaif entered the United States on a nonimmigrant student visa to attend university. After he received poor grades, the university dismissed him and told him that his " ‘immigration status’ " would be terminated unless he transferred to a different university or left the country. App. to Pet. for Cert. 3a. Rehaif did neither.

Rehaif subsequently visited a firing range, where he shot two firearms. The Government learned about his target practice and prosecuted him for possessing firearms as an alien unlawfully in the United States, in violation of § 922(g) and § 924(a)(2). At the close of Rehaif's trial, the judge instructed the jury (over Rehaif's objection) that the "United States is not required to prove" that Rehaif "knew that he was illegally or unlawfully in the United States." App. to Pet. for Cert. 4a (internal quotation marks omitted). The jury returned a guilty verdict, and Rehaif was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment.

Rehaif appealed. He argued that the judge erred in instructing the jury that it did not need to find that he knew he was in the country unlawfully. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, however, concluded that the jury instruction was correct, and it affirmed Rehaif's conviction. See 888 F.3d 1138, 1148 (2018). The Court of Appeals believed that the criminal law generally does not require a defendant to know his own status, and further observed that no court of appeals had required the Government to establish a defendant's knowledge of his status in the analogous context of felon-in-possession prosecutions. Id. , at 1145–1146.

We granted certiorari to consider whether, in prosecutions under § 922(g) and § 924(a)(2), the Government must prove that a defendant knows of his status as a person barred from possessing a firearm. We now reverse.


Whether a criminal statute requires the Government to prove that the defendant acted knowingly is a question of congressional intent. See Staples v. United States , 511 U.S. 600, 605, 114 S.Ct. 1793, 128 L.Ed.2d 608 (1994). In determining Congress' intent, we start from a longstanding presumption, traceable to the common law, that Congress intends to require a defendant to possess a culpable mental state regarding "each of the statutory elements that criminalize otherwise innocent conduct." United States v. X-Citement Video, Inc. , 513 U.S. 64, 72, 115 S.Ct. 464, 130 L.Ed.2d 372 (1994) ; see also Morissette v. United States , 342 U.S. 246, 256–258, 72 S.Ct. 240, 96 L.Ed. 288 (1952). We normally characterize this interpretive maxim as a presumption in favor of "scienter," by which we mean a presumption that criminal statutes require the degree of knowledge sufficient to "mak[e] a person legally responsible for the consequences of his or her act or omission." Black's Law Dictionary 1547 (10th ed. 2014).

We apply the presumption in favor of scienter even when Congress does not specify any scienter in the statutory text. See Staples , 511 U.S. at 606, 114 S.Ct. 1793. But the presumption applies with equal or greater force when Congress includes a general scienter provision in the statute itself. See ALI, Model Penal Code § 2.02(4), p. 22 (1985) (when a statute "prescribes the kind of culpability that is sufficient for the commission of an offense, without distinguishing among the material elements thereof, such provision shall apply to all the material elements of the offense, unless a contrary purpose plainly appears").


Here we can find no convincing reason to depart from the ordinary presumption in favor of scienter. The statutory text supports the presumption. The text of § 924(a)(2) says that "[w]hoever knowingly violates" certain subsections of § 922, including § 922(g), "shall be" subject to penalties of up to 10 years' imprisonment. The text of § 922(g) in turn provides that it "shall be unlawful for any person ..., being an alien ... illegally or unlawfully in the United States," to "possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition."

The term "knowingly" in § 924(a)(2) modifies the verb "violates" and its direct object, which in this case is § 922(g). The proper interpretation of the statute thus turns on what it means for a defendant to know that he has "violate[d]" § 922(g). With some here-irrelevant omissions, § 922(g) makes possession of a firearm or ammunition unlawful when the following elements are satisfied: (1) a status element (in this case, "being an alien ... illegally or unlawfully in the United States"); (2) a possession element (to "possess"); (3) a jurisdictional element ("in or affecting commerce"); and (4) a firearm element (a "firearm or ammunition").

No one here claims that the word "knowingly" modifies the statute's jurisdictional element. Jurisdictional elements do not describe the "evil Congress seeks to prevent," but instead simply ensure that the Federal Government has the constitutional authority to regulate the defendant's conduct (normally, as here, through its Commerce Clause power). Luna Torres v. Lynch , 578 U.S. ––––, –––– – ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1619, 1630–1631, 194 L.Ed.2d 737 (2016). Because jurisdictional elements normally have nothing to do with the wrongfulness of the defendant's conduct, such elements are not subject to the presumption in favor of scienter. See id., at ––––, 136 S.Ct., at 1631.

Jurisdictional element aside, however, the text of § 922(g) simply lists the elements that make a defendant's behavior criminal. As "a matter of ordinary English grammar," we normally read the statutory term " ‘knowingly’ as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime." Flores-Figueroa v. United States , 556 U.S. 646, 650, 129 S.Ct. 1886, 173 L.Ed.2d 853 (2009) ; see also id., at 652, 129 S.Ct. 1886 (we "ordinarily read a phrase in a criminal statute that introduces the elements of a crime with the word ‘knowingly’ as applying that word to each element"). This is notably not a case where the modifier "knowingly" introduces a long statutory phrase, such that questions may reasonably arise about how far into the statute the modifier extends. See id., at 659, 129 S.Ct. 1886 (ALITO, J., concurring in part). And everyone agrees that the word "knowingly" applies to § 922(g)'s possession element, which is situated after the status element. We see no basis to interpret "knowingly" as applying to the second § 922(g) element but not the first. See United States v. Games-Perez , 667 F.3d 1136, 1143 (CA10 2012) (Gorsuch, J., concurring). To the contrary, we think that by specifying that a defendant may be convicted only if he "knowingly violates" § 922(g), Congress intended to require the Government to establish that the defendant knew he violated the material elements of § 922(g).


Beyond the text, our reading of § 922(g) and § 924(a)(2) is consistent with a basic principle that underlies the criminal law, namely, the importance of showing what Blackstone called "a vicious will." 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 21 (1769). As this Court has explained, the understanding that an injury is criminal only if inflicted knowingly "is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil." Morissette , 342 U.S. at 250, 72 S.Ct. 240. Scienter requirements advance this basic principle of criminal law by helping to "separate those who understand the wrongful nature of their act from those who do not." X-Citement Video , 513 U.S. at 72–73, n. 3, 115 S.Ct. 464.

The cases in which we have emphasized scienter's importance in separating wrongful from innocent acts are legion. See, e.g. , id. , at 70, 115 S.Ct. 464 ; Staples , 511 U.S. at 610, 114 S.Ct. 1793 ; Liparota v. United States , 471 U.S. 419, 425, 105 S.Ct. 2084, 85 L.Ed.2d 434 (1985) ; United States v. Bailey , 444 U.S. 394, 406, n. 6, 100 S.Ct. 624, 62 L.Ed.2d 575 (1980) ; United States v. United States Gypsum Co. , 438 U.S. 422, 436, 98 S.Ct. 2864, 57 L.Ed.2d 854 (1978) ; ...

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