In one of its most important decisions of 2013, the Eighth Circuit ruled en banc in United States v. Bruguier, issued on November 5, 2013 (published), that the word “knowingly” in the statute criminalizing sex with a physically or mentally-impaired person applied to all elements of the statute. The government must therefore prove that the defendant knew not only that he was engaging in a sexual act, but also that the victim was incapacitated. The Court explained that under Supreme Court precedent, there was a presumption that the word knowingly applied to all elements of a crime, unless the “context” or “background circumstances” of a statute lead to a different reading. Here, the “broader statutory context” reinforced the presumption. Moreover, even if standard rules of statutory construction left any doubt about the reach of “knowingly” in the statute, the rule of lenity, the potentially harsh penalty of life imprisonment , and the legislative history “would tip the balance in favor of construing ‘knowingly’ to apply to the victim-incapacity element of the statute.”
Since the district court had instructed that the mental element only applied to the act of engaging in sex, but not the capacity of the victim, Bruguier’s conviction was reversed and a new trial ordered.
The case has important implications for the interpretation of the reach of the mental element in other criminal statutes. And there are a lot of them. So many, in fact, they are impossible to count.