258 U.S. 250 (1922), 480, United States v. Balint

Docket Nº:No. 480
Citation:258 U.S. 250, 42 S.Ct. 301, 66 L.Ed. 604
Party Name:United States v. Balint
Case Date:March 27, 1922
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 250

258 U.S. 250 (1922)

42 S.Ct. 301, 66 L.Ed. 604

United States



No. 480

United States Supreme Court

March 27, 1922

Argued March 7, 1922




1. Whether scienter is a necessary element of a statutory crime, though not expressed in the statute, is a question of legislative intent to be answered by a construction of the statute. P. 251.

Page 251

2. Punishment for an illegal act done by one in ignorance of the facts making it illegal is not contrary to due process of law. P. 252.

3. To constitute the offense of selling drugs contrary to § 2 of the Anti-Narcotic Act, it is not necessary that the seller be aware of their character. P. 253.


Error to an order sustaining a demurrer to and quashing an indictment.

TAFT, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE TAFT delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a writ of error to the district court under the Criminal Appeals Act of March 2, 1907, c. 2564, 34 Stat. 1246. Defendants in error were indicted for a violation of the Narcotic Act of December 17, 1914, c. 1, 38 Stat. 785, 786. The indictment charged them with unlawfully selling to another a certain amount of a derivative of opium and a certain amount of a derivative of coca leaves not in pursuance of any written order on a form issued in blank for that purpose by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, contrary to the provisions of § 2 of the act.. The defendants demurred to the indictment on the ground that it failed to charge that they had sold the inhibited drugs knowing them to be such. The statute does not make such knowledge an element of the offense. The district court sustained the demurrer and quashed the indictment. The correctness of this ruling is the question before us.

While the general rule at common law was that the scienter was a necessary element in the indictment and proof of every crime, and this was followed in regard to statutory crimes even where the statutory definition did

Page 252

not in terms include it (Reg. v. Sleep, 8 Cox, 472), there has been a modification of this view in respect to prosecutions under statutes the purpose of which would be obstructed by such a requirement. It is a question of legislative intent to be construed by the court. It has been objected that punishment of a person for an act in violation of law when ignorant of the facts making it so is an absence of due process of law. But that objection is considered and overruled in Shevlin-Carpenter Co. v. Minnesota, 218 U.S. 57, 69-70, in which it was held that, in the prohibition or punishment of particular acts, the state may, in the maintenance of a public policy, provide "that he who shall do them shall do them at his peril, and will not be heard to plead in defense good faith or ignorance." Many instances of this are to be found in regulatory measures in the exercise of what is called the police power where the emphasis of the statute is evidently upon achievement of some social betterment, rather than the punishment of the crimes as in cases of mala in se. Commonwealth v. Mixer, 207 Mass. 141; Commonwealth v. Smith, 166 Mass. 370; ...

To continue reading