In a recent case (United States v. Moore, 612 F.3d 698 (D.C. Cir. 2010)), Judge Kavanaugh in a concurring opinion focused on this issue although siding with the majority because the defendant had not properly raised the issue at trial. The facts are that, incident to a drug investigation, the USPS intercepted a drug package addressed to "Karen White" and then, after substituting white powder for the drug, had a USPS employee deliver it to the address. At the address, the USPS employee delivered the package to the defendant, a male, upon his representation that he was Karen White's boyfriend and upon his signing the receipt with a false name. The defendant was thereafter first charged with drug crimes and the jury hung. He was tried a second time for the same charges but with a false statement charge added for his conduct in accepting the package. On the second trial, the jury hung again on the drug charges but convicted on the false statement charge. On appeal, Moore urged that the falsity was not "materially false" (another element in Section 1001). The panel unanimously handily rejected that argument. Speaking to the substantive issue of whether "knowingly and willfully" requires knowledge of criminality, Judge Kavanagh echoed the concerns of Judge Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit in dealing with the somewhat amorphous crime of the defraud conspiracy (the Klein conspiracy in tax context) and that is not surprising because, as Judge Kavanaugh cites, Judge Kozinski has addressed this concern in the context of 18 USC § 1001. I quote (pp. 703-704) (parallel citations omitted):
Proper application of statutory mens rea requirements and background mens rea principles can mitigate the risk of abuse and unfair lack of notice in prosecutions under § 1001 and other regulatory statutes. In § 1001 cases, that means proof that the defendant knew that making the false statement would be a crime. To be sure, "ignorance of law is no defense" is a hoary maxim. But it does not automatically apply to today's phalanx of federal regulatory crimes. See WAYNE R. LAFAVE, CRIMINAL LAW § 5.6, at 298-311 (5th ed.2010). For some regulatory offenses -- particularly statutes like § 1001 that proscribe only "willful" conduct -- the Supreme Court has recognized an ignorance-of-law or mistake-of-law defense, or has required affirmative proof of the defendant's knowledge that his or her conduct was unlawful. See Bryan v. United States, 524 U.S. 184 (1998); Ratzlaf v. United States, 510 U.S. 135, 141-49 (1994); Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 199-201 (1991); Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 225, 229-30 (1957); cf. Liparota v. United States, 471 U.S. 419 (1985); Dan M. Kahan, Ignorance of Law Is an Excuse -- But Only for the Virtuous, 96 MICH. L. REV. 127, 150 (1997) (noting that"courts permit mistake of law as a defense  selectively across malum prohibitum crimes"). For criminal statutes prohibiting "willful" violators, those cases together require proof that the defendant was aware that the conduct was unlawful.Notice that Judge Kavanaugh repeats in the footnote the notion that Bryan requires proof that the defendant knew of the specific Code provision he or she intended to violate. Setting that aside (there is no requirement that the defendant know the specific Code section, taking the Supreme Court literally on tax issue is a mistake), it is clear that Cheek requires only that the defendant knew the conduct was illegal and intended to do the act he or she knew to be illegal. That is the point to which Judge Kavanaugh focuses his fire -- does the Cheek willfulness requirement of knowledge of criminality also apply to 18 USC Section 1001?
In Bryan, the Supreme Court summarized the rule quite clearly: "[I]n order to establish a willful violation of a statute, the Government must prove that the defendant acted with knowledge that his conduct was unlawful." 524 U.S. at 191-92 (internal quotation marks omitted). Since Bryan, the Court has reiterated this formulation on several occasions. See also Safeco Ins. Co. of America v. Burr, 551 U.S. 47, 57 n.9 (2007) ("we have consistently held that a defendant cannot harbor such criminal intent unless he acted with knowledge that his conduct was unlawful") (internal quotation marks omitted); Dixon v. United States, 548 U.S. 1, 5 (2006) (the term"willfully" "requires a defendant to have acted with knowledge that his conduct was unlawful") (internal quotation marks omitted).*
n* To say that the Government must prove the defendant knew the conduct was a crime is not necessarily to say that the Government must prove the defendant knew the specific code provision proscribing the conduct, except with respect to certain highly technical statutes. See Bryan, 524 U.S. at 194; cf. Ratzlaf, 510 U.S. at 141 (anti-structuring statute); Cheek, 498 U.S. at 200 (tax statute).
It is true that our Court many years ago seemed to assume (in addressing a mens rea issue under a different statute) that proving the defendant's knowledge of the law may not be required in § 1001 cases. See United States v. Hsia, 176 F.3d 517, 522 n.3 (D.C. Cir. 1999). In so doing, Hsia referenced a 1994 Third Circuit opinion that pre-dated the Supreme Court's clarifying decisions in Bryan and later cases. That assumption may not endure in light of those subsequent Supreme Court precedents. In a future case, we therefore may need to consider the appropriate mens rea requirements and defenses for § 1001 prosecutions under those Supreme Court decisions.
Here, however, there is no legal obstacle to our affirming Moore's § 1001 conviction: Moore did not contend that the term "willfully" in § 1001 requires proof of the defendant's knowledge of the law, and he did not challenge the jury instructions on that basis. But in a case where the issue is raised, the Supreme Court's precedents arguably require district courts in § 1001 cases to give a willfulness instruction that requires proof that the defendant knew his conduct was a crime. To be sure, in many false statements cases the Government will be able to easily prove that the defendant knew his conduct was unlawful. But in some cases, it will not be able to do so -- and those of course are precisely the cases where it would seem inappropriate and contrary to § 1001's statutory text to impose criminal punishment.
Thanks to the White Collar Crime Prof Blog here for the lead to Judge Kavanaugh's discussion.