217 U.S. 349 (1910), 20, Weems v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 20
Citation:217 U.S. 349, 30 S.Ct. 544, 54 L.Ed. 793
Party Name:Weems v. United States
Case Date:May 02, 1910
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 349

217 U.S. 349 (1910)

30 S.Ct. 544, 54 L.Ed. 793



United States

No. 20

United States Supreme Court

May 2, 1910

Argued November 30

December 1, 1909



A paramount governmental authority may make use of subordinate governmental instruments without the creation of a distinct legal entity, as is the case of the United States and the United States Government of the Philippine Islands.

Under the Philippine Criminal Code of Procedure, a public offense need not necessarily be described in the information in exact words of the statute, but only in ordinary and concise language, so as to enable a person of common understanding to understand the charge and the court to pronounce judgment.

A charge describing the accused as a public official of the United States Government of the Philippine Islands and his offense as falsifying a public and official document in this case held sufficient. Carrington v. United States, 208 U.S. 1, distinguished.

The provision in Rule 35 that this court may, at its option, notice a plain error not assigned is not a rigid rule controlled by precedent, but confers a discretion exercisable at any time, regardless of what may have been done at other times; the court has less reluctance to disregard prior examples in criminal, than in civil, cases, and will act under the Rule when rights constitutional in nature or secured under a bill of rights are asserted.

Although not raised in the courts below, this court will, under Rule 35, consider an assignment of error made for the first time in this court that a sentence is cruel and unusual within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution or of the similar provision in the Philippine bill of rights.

In interpreting the Eighth Amendment, it will be regarded as a precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to the offense.

A provision of the Philippine bill of rights taken from the Constitution of the United States must have the same meaning, and so held that the provision prohibiting cruel and unusual punishments must be interpreted as the Eighth Amendment has been.

What constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment has not been exactly defined, and no case as heretofore occurred in this court calling for an exhaustive definition.

Page 350

While legislation, both statutory and constitutional, is enacted to remedy existing evils, its general language is not necessarily so confined, and it may be capable of wider application than to the mischief giving it birth.

The Eighth Amendment is progressive, and does not prohibit merely the cruel and unusual punishments known in 1689 and 1787, but may acquire wider meaning as public opinion becomes enlightened by humane justice, and a similar provision in the Philippine bill of rights applies to long-continued imprisonment with accessories disproportionate to the offense.

While the judiciary may not oppose its power to that of the legislature in defining crimes and their punishment as to expediency, it is the duty of the judiciary to determine whether the legislature has contravened a constitutional prohibition and in that respect, and, for that purpose, the power of the judiciary is superior to that of the legislature.

It is within the power of this court to declare a statute of the Penal Code defining a crime and fixing its punishment void as violative of the provision in the Philippine bill of rights prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

In determining whether a punishment is cruel and unusual as fixed by the Philippine Commission, this court will consider the punishment of the same or similar crimes in other parts of the United States, as exhibiting the difference between power unrestrained and that exercised under the spirit of constitutional limitations formed to establish justice.

Where the statute unites all the penalties, the court cannot separate them, even if separable, unless it is clear that the union was not made imperative by the legislature; and, in this case, held that the penalties of cadena temporal, principal and accessories, under art. 56 of the Penal Code of the Philippine Islands, are not independent of each other.

Where the minimum sentence which the court might impose is cruel and unusual within the prohibition of a bill of rights, the fault is in the law, and not in the sentence, and if there is no other law under which sentence can be imposed, it is the duty of the court to declare the law void.

Where sentence cannot be imposed under any law except that declared unconstitutional or void, the case cannot be remanded for new sentence, but the judgment must be reversed with directions to dismiss the proceedings.

In this case, the court declared § 56 of the Penal Code of the Philippine

Page 351

Islands, and a sentence pronounced thereunder, void as violating the provision in the Philippine bill of rights contained in 5 of the act of July 1, 1902, c. 1369, 32 Stat. 691, against the imposition of excessive fines and the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment, insofar as being prescribed for an offense by an officer of the Government of making false entries in public records as to payments of 616 pesos, the punishment being a fine of 4,000 pesos and cadena temporal of over twelve years with accessories, such accessories including the carrying of chains, deprivation of civil rights during imprisonment, and thereafter perpetual disqualification to enjoy political rights, hold office, etc., and subjection besides to surveillance.

The history of the adoption of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and cases involving constitutional prohibitions against excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment reviewed and discussed in the opinion of the court and the dissenting opinion.

The facts, which involve the legality of § 56 of the Penal Code of the Philippine Islands, and a sentence thereunder, under the guarantees against cruel and unusual punishments of the bill of rights of the Philippine Islands as expressed in the act of July 1, 1902, are stated in the opinion.

Page 357

MCKENNA, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE McKENNA delivered the opinion of the court. *

This writ of error brings up for review the judgment of the supreme court of the Philippine Islands, affirming the conviction of plaintiff in error for falsifying a "public and official document."

In the "complaint," by which the prosecution was begun, it was charged that the plaintiff in error,

a duly appointed, qualified, and acting disbursing officer of the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation of the United States Government of the Philippine Islands,

did, as such,

corruptly, and with intent then and there to deceive and defraud the United States Government of the Philippine Islands and its officials, falsify a public and official document, namely, a cash book of the captain of the port of Manilla, Philippine Islands, and the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation of the United States Government of the Philippine Islands,

kept by him as disbursing officer of that bureau. The falsification, which is alleged with much particularity, was committed by entering as paid out, "as wages of employees of the lighthouse service

Page 358

of the United States Government of the Philippine Islands," at the Capul Light House, of 208 pesos, and for like service at the Matabriga Light House of 408 pesos, Philippine currency. A demurrer was filed to the "complaint," which was overruled.

He was convicted, and the following sentence was imposed upon him:

To the penalty of fifteen years of cadena, together with the accessories of section 56 of the Penal Code, and to pay a fine of 4,000 pesetas, but not to serve imprisonment as a subsidiary punishment in case of his insolvency, on account of the nature of the main penalty, and to pay the costs of this cause.

The judgment and sentence were affirmed by the supreme court of the islands.

It is conceded by plaintiff in error that some of the questions presented to the Supreme Court of the Philippine Islands cannot be raised in this court, as the record does not contain the evidence. Indeed, plaintiff in error confines his discussion to one point raised in the court below and to [30 S.Ct. 546] three other questions, which, though not brought to the attention of the Supreme Court of the islands, and not included in the assignment of errors, are of such importance, it is said, that this court will consider them under the right reserved in Rule 35. *

Page 359

These questions, which are assigned as error on the argument here, are as follows:

1. The court below erred in overruling the demurrer to the complaint, this assignment being based upon the fact that, in the complaint, the plaintiff in error is described as the "disbursing officer of the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation of the United States Government of the Philippine Islands," and the cash book referred to in the complaint is described as a book "of the captain of the port of Manila, Philippine Islands," whereas there is no such body politic as the "United States government of the Philippine Islands."

2. The record does not disclose that the plaintiff in error was arraigned, or that he pleaded to the complaint after his demurrer was overruled and he was "ordered to plead to the complaint."

3. The record does not show that the plaintiff in error was present when he was tried, or, indeed, that he was present in court at any time.

4. The punishment of fifteen years' imprisonment was a cruel and unusual punishment, and, to the extent of the sentence, the judgment below should be reversed on this ground.

The second assignment of error was based upon a misapprehension of the fact, and has been abandoned.

The argument to support the first assignment of error is based...

To continue reading