Published on:

Jurisdiction to sentence was not affected by the failure to allege the defendant knowingly received counterfeit money orders

In U.S. v. Brown the Defendant pleaded guilty in federal court for knowingly receiving 481 counterfeit United States Postal Money Orders from a foreign county with intent to pass them off as real, violation of 18 U.S.C. § 473. As part of her plea agreement she waived her right to appeal her federal conviction and sentence. At the plea colloquy she admitted that she knew the postal money orders were not true and were counterfeit.

Nevertheless, she filed her appeal and raised the issue in her appeal that her indictment was defective because it did not expressly allege the mens rea element of the section 473. She argued that the omission deprived the federal court of subject-matter jurisdiction to accept her guilty plea and therefore her conviction is null and void.
Brown’s two count indictment was based on her receipt of packages containing the counterfeit money orders. Count one did not allege knowledge, however count 2 did allege that the defendant acted knowingly. The Defendant plead guilty to count one.

Brown’s jurisdictional argument went like this. The indictment was defective on its face because count one did not include the required mens rea element, which is an essential element of section 473 that makes if a crime to receive and/or pass counterfeit money orders. Because of this omission, Brown argued the indictment does not state a federal crime and therefore the district court never had jurisdiction to sentence her.

The government argued that the indictment was not defective because the mens rea element can be inferred from other language in count one. Furthermore, it argued that count two provided the mens rea element by charging Brown “knowingly” imported counterfeit money orders into the United States. It also argued the Defendant waived jurisdiction by entering the plea agreement, which expressly stated the elements of the 473 offense, including the element that the defendant then knew that the postal money order were counterfeit.

The court of appeal analyzed cases involving the defects in the indictment where there was an omission of an element of the offense. In those cases the court found that an indictment’s omission of an element of the crime does not create a jurisdictional defect. The omission in the indictment was non-jurisdictional. In cases where the indictment does fail to invoke the subject-matter jurisdiction, the court of appeal found the indictments failed to charge a federal crime. In those instances the district court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction because the indictment fails to invoke the district court’s statutory authority under 18 U.S.C. § 3231 over “offenses against the laws of the United States.”

In determining whether an indictment defect is jurisdictional, the court of appeals looks at whether the indictment charged the defendant with a criminal offense against the United States. In Brown’s case the indictment did charge her with violation 18 U.S.C. § 473, a valid federal statute. The indictment cites the statute and it tracked the statutory language of the stature. The omission of an element of the offense did not defeat the court’s jurisdiction.