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SCOTUS: Penalty enhancement statute must be interpreted to apply narrowly

Dubin v. United States, USSC No. 22-10, 2023 WL 3872518 (June 8, 2023), vacating and remanding United States v. Dubin, 27 F.4th 1021 (5th Cir. 2022); Scotusblog page (including links to briefs and commentary)

Faced with competing interpretations of a penalty enhancement statute, the Supreme Court adopts the narrower interpretation based on both a careful reading of the language and context of the statute and its “tradition[] of “exercis[ing] restraint in assessing the reach of a federal criminal statute.” (Slip op. 17).

The statute at issue is 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1), which requires a mandatory 2-year prison sentence for “aggravated identity theft,” defined as using another person’s identification during and in relation to the commission of any of a number of predicate offenses. Dubin was charged under this statute after he submitted a Medicaid reimbursement claim that overstated the qualifications of a psychological service provider, thus inflating the amount of reimbursement. Because the claim was submitted for services provided to a patient, the patient’s identifying information had to be included in the claim. Thus, the government argued, Dubin used the patient’s identification to commit Medicaid fraud (a predicate offense) and is guilty of aggravated identify theft. (Slip op. 2-3).

The Court is not persuaded. It rejects the government’s interpretation as “sweeping” and overbroad, detached from the language of the statute itself and as read in context of the entire statutory scheme–in particular its title of aggravated identity theft, which ties the statute to fraudulent appropriation and use of another’s identity, and the fact it would impose a mandatory minimum for many predicate offenses that do not other carry one and without regard for the nature of that offense. (Slip op. 4-17). “Instead,” the Court holds, “§ 1028A(a)(1) is violated when the defendant’s misuse of another person’s means of identification is at the crux of what makes the underlying offense criminal, rather than merely an ancillary feature of a billing method.” (Slip op. 1). Dubin’s use of the patient’s identification wasn’t the crux of the offense, the mandatory minimum didn’t apply to him, and that sentence is vacated. (Slip op. 19-21).

Gorsuch concurs in the judgment, but would go further and declare the statute unconstitutionally vague. Though he thinks the Court did the best it could to make sense of the statute, its “crux” test will not provide clarity or consistency and Congress alone can fix the problem. (Concurrence 1-7).

This decision will be of interest to most readers not for the specific subject matter, but as an authority that criminal statutes should be read narrowly, particularly when, as here, the government offers an interpretation of “staggering breadth….”

This Court has “‘traditionally exercised restraint in assessing the reach of a federal criminal statute.’” …. This restraint arises “both out of deference to the prerogatives of Congress and out of concern that a fair warning should be given to the world in language that the common world will understan[d] of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed.” …. After all, “[c]rimes are supposed to be defined by the legislature, not by clever prosecutors riffing on equivocal language.” ….

(Slip op. 17 (quoted sources omitted)).

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