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United States v. Santos

June 2, 2008


On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Seventh Circuit Court Below: 461 F. 3d 886



Argued October 3, 2007

In an illegal lottery run by respondent Santos, runners took commissions from the bets they gathered, and some of the rest of the money was paid as salary to respondent Diaz and other collectors and to the winning gamblers. Based on these payments to runners, collectors, and winners, Santos was convicted of, inter alia, violating the federal money-laundering statute, 18 U. S. C. §1956, which prohibits the use of the "proceeds" of criminal activities for various purposes, including engaging in, and conspiring to engage in, transactions intended to promote the carrying on of unlawful activity, §1956(a)(1)(A)(i) and §1956(h). Based on his receipt of salary, Diaz pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder money. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the convictions. On collateral review, the District Court ruled that, under intervening Circuit precedent interpreting the word "proceeds" in the federal money-laundering statute, §1956(a)(1)(A)(i) applies only to transactions involving criminal profits, not criminal receipts. Finding no evidence that the transactions on which respondents' money-laundering convictions were based involved lottery profits, the court vacated those convictions. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

461 F. 3d 886, affirmed.

Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Souter, Justice Thomas, and Justice Ginsburg, concluded in Parts I-III and V that the term "proceeds" in §1956(a)(1) means "profits," not "receipts." Pp. 3-14, 16-17.

(a) The rule of lenity dictates adoption of the "profits" reading. The statute nowhere defines "proceeds." An undefined term is generally given its ordinary meaning. Asgrow Seed Co. v. Winterboer, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scalia, J.

553 U. S. ____ (2008)

Justice Scalia announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Justice Souter and Justice Ginsburg join, and in which Justice Thomas joins as to all but Part IV.

We consider whether the term "proceeds" in the federal money-laundering statute, 18 U. S. C. §1956(a)(1), means "receipts" or "profits."


From the 1970's until 1994, respondent Santos operated a lottery in Indiana that was illegal under state law. See Ind. Code §35-45-5-3 (West 2004). Santos employed a number of helpers to run the lottery. At bars and restaurants, Santos's runners gathered bets from gamblers, kept a portion of the bets (between 15% and 25%) as their commissions, and delivered the rest to Santos's collectors. Collectors, one of whom was respondent Diaz, then delivered the money to Santos, who used some of it to pay the salaries of collectors (including Diaz) and to pay the winners.

These payments to runners, collectors, and winners formed the basis of a 10-count indictment filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, naming Santos, Diaz, and 11 others. A jury found Santos guilty of one count of conspiracy to run an illegal gambling business (§371), one count of running an illegal gambling business (§1955), one count of conspiracy to launder money (§1956(a)(1)(A)(i) and §1956(h)), and two counts of money laundering (§1956(a)(1)(A)(i)). The court sentenced Santos to 60 months of imprisonment on the two gambling counts and to 210 months of imprisonment on the three money-laundering counts. Diaz pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder money, and the District Court sentenced him to 108 months of imprisonment. The Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions and sentences. United States v. Febus, 218 F. 3d 784 (CA7 2000). We declined to review the case. 531 U. S. 1021 (2000).

Thereafter, respondents filed motions under 28 U. S. C. §2255, collaterally attacking their convictions and sentences. The District Court rejected all of their claims but one, a challenge to their money-laundering convictions based on the Seventh Circuit's subsequent decision in United States v. Scialabba, 282 F. 3d 475 (2002), which held that the federal money-laundering statute's prohibition of transactions involving criminal "proceeds" applies only to transactions involving criminal profits, not criminal receipts. Id., at 478. Applying that holding to respondents' cases, the District Court found no evidence that the transactions on which the money-laundering convictions were based (Santos's payments to runners, winners, and collectors and Diaz's receipt of payment for his collection services) involved profits, as opposed to receipts, of the illegal lottery, and accordingly vacated the money-laundering convictions. The Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting the Government's contention that Scialabba was wrong and should be overruled. 461 F. 3d 886 (CA7 2006). We granted certiorari. 550 U. S. ___ (2007).


The federal money-laundering statute prohibits a number of activities involving criminal "proceeds." Most relevant to this case is 18 U. S. C. §1956(a)(1)(A)(i), which criminalizes transactions to promote criminal activity.*fn1 This provision uses the term "proceeds" in describing two elements of the offense: the Government must prove that a charged transaction "in fact involve[d] the proceeds of specified unlawful activity" (the proceeds element), and it also must prove that a defendant knew "that the property involved in" the charged transaction "represent[ed] the proceeds of some form of unlawful activity" (the knowledge element). §1956(a)(1).

The federal money-laundering statute does not define "proceeds." When a term is undefined, we give it its ordinary meaning. Asgrow Seed Co. v. Winterboer, 513 U. S. 179, 187 (1995). "Proceeds" can mean either "receipts" or "profits." Both meanings are accepted, and have long been accepted, in ordinary usage. See, e.g., 12 Oxford English Dictionary 544 (2d ed. 1989); Random House Dictionary of the English Language 1542 (2d ed. 1987); Webster's New International Dictionary 1972 (2d ed. 1957) (hereinafter Webster's 2d). The Government contends that dictionaries generally prefer the "receipts" definition over the "profits" definition, but any preference is too slight for us to conclude that "receipts" is the primary meaning of "proceeds."

"Proceeds," moreover, has not acquired a common meaning in the provisions of the Federal Criminal Code. Most leave the term undefined. See, e.g., 18 U. S. C. §1963; 21 U. S. C. §853. Recognizing the word's inherent ambiguity, Congress has defined "proceeds" in various criminal provisions, but sometimes has defined it to mean "receipts" and sometimes "profits." Compare 18 U. S. C. §2339C(e)(3) (2000 ed., Supp. V) (receipts), §981(a)(2)(A) (2000 ed.) (same), with §981(a)(2)(B) (profits).

Since context gives meaning, we cannot say the money-laundering statute is truly ambiguous until we consider "proceeds" not in isolation but as it is used in the federal money-laundering statute. See United Sav. Assn. of Tex. v. Timbers of Inwood Forest Associates, Ltd., 484 U. S. 365, 371 (1988). The word appears repeatedly throughout the statute, but all of those appearances leave the ambiguity intact. Section 1956(a)(1) itself, for instance, makes sense under either definition: one can engage in a financial transaction with either receipts or profits of a crime; one can intend to promote the carrying on of a crime with either its receipts or its profits; and one can try to conceal the nature, location, etc., of either receipts or profits. The same is true of all the other provisions of this legislation in which the term "proceeds" is used. They make sense under either definition. See, for example, §1956(a)(2)(B), which speaks of "proceeds" represented by a "monetary instrument or funds."

Justice Alito's dissent (the principal dissent) makes much of the fact that 14 States that use and define the word "proceeds" in their money-laundering statutes,*fn2 the Model Money Laundering Act, and an international treaty on the subject, all define the term to include gross receipts. See post, at 3-5. We do not think this evidence shows that the drafters of the federal money-laundering statute used "proceeds" as a term of art for "receipts." Most of the state laws cited by the dissent, the Model Act, and the treaty postdate the 1986 federal money-laundering statute by several years, so Congress was not acting against the backdrop of those definitions when it enacted the federal statute. If anything, they show that "proceeds" is ambiguous and that others who believed that money-laundering statutes ought to include gross receipts sought to clarify the ambiguity that Congress created when it left the term undefined.*fn3

Under either of the word's ordinary definitions, all provisions of the federal money-laundering statute are coherent; no provisions are redundant; and the statute is not rendered utterly absurd. From the face of the statute, there is no more reason to think that "proceeds" means "receipts" than there is to think that "proceeds" means "profits." Under a long line of our decisions, the tie must go to the defendant. The rule of lenity requires ambiguous criminal laws to be interpreted in favor of the defendants subjected to them. See United States v. Gradwell, 243 U. S. 476, 485 (1917); McBoyle v. United States, 283 U. S. 25, 27 (1931); United States v. Bass, 404 U. S. 336, 347-349 (1971). This venerable rule not only vindicates the fundamental principle that no citizen should be held accountable for a violation of a statute whose commands are uncertain, or subjected to punishment that is not clearly prescribed. It also places the weight of inertia upon the party that can best induce Congress to speak more clearly and keeps courts from making criminal law in Congress's stead. Because the "profits" definition of "proceeds" is always more defendant-friendly than the "receipts" definition, the rule of lenity dictates that it should be adopted.


Stopping short of calling the "profits" interpretation absurd, the Government contends that the interpretation should nonetheless be rejected because it fails to give the federal money-laundering statute its proper scope and because it hinders effective enforcement of the law. Neither contention overcomes the rule of lenity.


According to the Government, if we do not read "proceeds" to mean "receipts," we will disserve the purpose of the federal money-laundering statute, which is, the Government says, to penalize criminals who conceal or promote their illegal activities. On the Government's view, "[t]he gross receipts of a crime accurately reflect the scale of the criminal activity, because the illegal activity generated all of the funds." Brief for United States 21; see also post, at 5-7 (Alito, J., dissenting).

When interpreting a criminal statute, we do not play the part of a mind reader. In our seminal rule-of-lenity decision, Chief Justice Marshall rejected the impulse to speculate regarding a dubious congressional intent. "[P]robability is not a guide which a court, in construing a penal statute, can safely take." United States v. Wiltberger, 5 Wheat. 76, 105 (1820). And Justice Frankfurter, writing for the Court in another case, said the following: "When Congress leaves to the Judiciary the task of imputing to Congress an undeclared will, the ambiguity should be resolved in favor of lenity." Bell v. United States, 349 U. S. 81, 83 (1955).

The statutory purpose advanced by the Government to construe "proceeds" is a textbook example of begging the question. To be sure, if "proceeds" meant "receipts," one could say that the statute was aimed at the dangers of concealment and promotion. But whether "proceeds" means "receipts" is the very issue in the case. If "proceeds" means "profits," one could say that the statute is aimed at the distinctive danger that arises from leaving in criminal hands the yield of a crime. A rational Congress could surely have decided that the risk of leveraging one criminal activity into the next poses a greater threat to society than the mere payment of crime-related expenses and justifies the money-laundering statute's harsh penalties.

If we accepted the Government's invitation to speculate about congressional purpose, we would also have to confront and explain the strange consequence of the "receipts" interpretation, which respondents have described as a "merger problem." See, e.g., Brief for Respondent Diaz 34. If "proceeds" meant "receipts," nearly every violation of the illegal-lottery statute would also be a violation of the money-laundering statute, because paying a winning bettor is a transaction involving receipts that the defendant intends to promote the carrying on of the lottery. Since few lotteries, if any, will not pay their winners, the statute criminalizing illegal lotteries, 18 U. S. C. §1955, would "merge" with the money-laundering statute. Congress evidently decided that lottery operators ordinarily deserve up to 5 years of imprisonment, §1955(a), but as a result of merger they would face an additional 20 years, §1956(a)(1). Prosecutors, of course, would acquire the discretion to charge the lesser lottery offense, the greater money-laundering offense, or both -- which would predictably be used to induce a plea bargain to the lesser charge.

The merger problem is not limited to lottery operators. For a host of predicate crimes, merger would depend on the manner and timing of payment for the expenses associated with the commission of the crime. Few crimes are entirely free of cost, and costs are not always paid in advance. Anyone who pays for the costs of a crime with its proceeds -- for example, the felon who uses the stolen money to pay for the rented getaway car -- would violate the money-laundering statute. And any wealth-acquiring crime with multiple participants would become money-laundering when the initial recipient of the wealth gives his confederates their shares.*fn4 Generally speaking, any specified unlawful activity, an episode of which includes transactions which are not elements of the offense and in which a participant passes receipts on to someone else, would merge with money laundering. There are more than 250 predicate offenses for the money-laundering statute, see Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, M. Motivans, Money Laundering Offenders 1994-2001, p. 2 (2003), online at (as visited May 29, 2008, and available in Clerk of Court's case file), and many foreseeably entail such transactions, see 18 U. S. C. §1956(c)(7) (establishing as predicate offenses a number of illegal trafficking and selling offenses, the expenses of which might be paid after the illegal transportation or sale).

The Government suggests no explanation for why Congress would have wanted a transaction that is a normal part of a crime it had duly considered and appropriately punished elsewhere in the Criminal Code to radically increase the sentence for that crime. Interpreting "proceeds" to mean "profits" eliminates the merger problem. Transactions that normally occur during the course of running a lottery are not identifiable uses of profits and thus do not violate the money-laundering statute. More generally, a criminal who enters into a transaction paying the expenses of his illegal activity cannot possibly violate the money-laundering statute, because by definition profits consist of what remains after expenses are paid. Defraying an activity's costs with its receipts simply will not be covered.

The principal dissent suggests that a solution to the merger problem may be found in giving a narrow interpretation to the "promotion prong" of the statute: A defendant might be deemed not to "promote" illegal activity "by doing those things ... that are needed merely to keep the business running," post, at 18, because promotion (presumably) means doing things that will cause a business to grow. See Webster's 2d, p. 1981 (giving as one of the meanings of "promote" "[t]o contribute to the growth [or] enlargement" of something). (This argument is embraced by Justice Breyer's dissent as well. See post, at 2.) The federal money-laundering statute, however, bars not the bare act of promotion, but engaging in certain transactions "with the intent to promote the carrying on of specified unlawful activity." 18 U. S. C. §1956(a)(1)(A)(i) (emphasis added). In that context the word naturally bears one of its other meanings, such as "[t]o contribute to the ... prosperity" of something, or to "further" something. See Webster's 2d, p. 1981. Surely one promotes "the carrying on" of a gambling enterprise by merely assuring that it continues in business.*fn5 In any event, to believe that this "narrow" interpretation of "promote" would solve the merger problem one must share the dissent's misperception that the statute applies just to the conduct of ongoing enterprises rather than individual unlawful acts. If the predicate act is theft by an individual, it makes no sense to ask whether an expenditure was intended to "grow" the culprit's theft business. The merger problem thus stands as a major obstacle to the dissent's interpretation of "proceeds."

Justice Breyer admits that the merger problem casts doubt on the Government's position, post, at 1, but believes there are "other, more legally felicitous" solutions to the problem, post, at 2. He suggests that the merger problem could be solved by holding that "the money laundering offense and the underlying offense that generated the money to be laundered must be distinct in order to be separately punishable." Ibid. The insuperable difficulty with this solution is that it has no basis whatever in the words of the statute. Even assuming (as one should not) the propriety of a judicial rewrite, why should one believe that Congress wanted courts to avoid the merger problem in that unusual fashion, rather than by adopting one of the two possible meanings of an ambiguous term? Justice Breyer pins hope on the possibility, "if the `merger' problem is essentially a problem of fairness in sentencing," that the United States Sentencing Commission might revise its recommended sentences for money laundering. Post, at 2-3. See also principal dissent, post, at 17-18 (in agreement). Even if that is a possibility, it is not a ...

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