“Knowingly” Ignorant: Mens Rea Distribution in Federal Criminal Law After Flores-Figueroa

 
By: Leonid (Lenny) Traps

 

The Supreme Court has repeatedly and emphatically disfavored applying strict liability to ambiguous elements of federal criminal statutes. The presumption against strict liability has been most pronounced where the statute at issue contains a mens rea or culpability term and the dispute is over which elements of the statute this term applies/extends to. In Flores-Figueroa v. United States, the Court culminated this line of cases by expounding an interpretive approach which applies the mens rea term in a statute to every subsequent element of the offense. This new framework was based on text and grammar rather than any particular substantive criminal law principles. The opinion’s textual logic appears to encompass many other federal criminal statutes with potentially strict liability elements. Lower federal courts, however, have not extended Flores-Figueroa’s reasoning to such analogous criminal statutes and have instead maintained strict liability applications in the contexts of offenses involving minors, firearm offenses, and immigration offenses. The lower court resistance to Flores-Figueroa has relied on prior Court precedent that only bars strict liability applications if the defendant would somehow be fundamentally “innocent” but for the use of strict liability. This Note argues that the lower court resistance to extending Flores-Figueroa needs to be highlighted and addressed and that the Supreme Court’s new approach, which replaces an incoherent innocence-based distinction with a clear workable rule in the context of mens rea distribution, needs to be forcefully reaffirmed in other statutory contexts.

 

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