319 U.S. 463 (1943), 569, Tot v. United States

Docket NºNo. 569
Citation319 U.S. 463, 63 S.Ct. 1241, 87 L.Ed. 1519
Party NameTot v. United States
Case DateJune 07, 1943
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 463

319 U.S. 463 (1943)

63 S.Ct. 1241, 87 L.Ed. 1519

Tot

v.

United States

No. 569

United States Supreme Court

June 7, 1943

Argued April 5, 1943

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. Sec. 2(f) of the Federal Firearms Act, where it provides that it shall be unlawful for any person who has been convicted of a crime of violence or is a fugitive from justice to receive any firearm or ammunition "which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce," is confined to the receipt of firearms or ammunition as a part of interstate transportation, and does not extend to the receipt, in an intrastate transaction, of such articles which, at come prior time, have been transported interstate. P. 466.

2. Congress was without power to create the presumptions sought to be created by § 2(f) of the Federal Firearms Act, to-wit: that, from the prisoner's prior conviction of a crime of violence and his present possession of a firearm or ammunition, it shall be presumed (1) that the article was received by him in interstate or foreign commerce, and (2) that such receipt occurred after July 30, 1938, the effective date of the statute. P. 466.

3. A statutory presumption cannot be sustained if there be no rational connection in common experience between the fact proved and the ultimate fact presumed. P. 467.

131 F.2d 261, reversed. 131 F.2d 614, affirmed.

CERTIORARI, 317 U.S. 623 (No. 569), to review the affirmance of a conviction under the Federal Firearms Act, and certiorari, 318 U.S. 748 (No. 636), to review a judgment reversing a like conviction.

Page 464

ROBERTS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases involve the construction and validity of § 2(f) of the Federal Firearms Act,1 which is:

It shall be unlawful for any person who has been convicted of a crime of violence or is a fugitive from justice to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce, and the possession of a firearm or ammunition by any such person shall be presumptive evidence that such firearm or ammunition was shipped or transported or received, as the case may be, by such person in violation of this Act.

In No. 569, Tot, the petitioner, was convicted2 upon an indictment which charged that he, having been previously convicted of two crimes of violence, a burglary and an assault and battery, with intent to beat, wound, and ill-treat,3 on or about September 20, 1938, at Newark, New Jersey, knowingly, unlawfully, and feloniously received a described firearm which "had been shipped and transported in interstate commerce to the said City of Newark." The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.4

The Government's evidence was that Tot had been convicted of assault and battery in 1925, and had pleaded non vult to a charge of burglary in 1932 in state courts, and that, on September 22, 1938, he was [63 S.Ct. 1244] found in possession of a loaded automatic pistol.

Page 465

After denial of a motion for a directed verdict, Tot took the stand and testified that he purchased the pistol in 1933 or 1934. He admitted the criminal record charged in the indictment and other convictions. His sister and his wife testified in corroboration of his evidence, but their testimony was shaken on cross-examination. In rebuttal, the Government produced a representative of the manufacturer who testified that the pistol had been made in Connecticut in 1919 and shipped by the maker to Chicago, Illinois. At the close of the case, petitioner renewed his motion for a directed verdict, which was denied.

In No. 636, Delia, the respondent, was convicted upon two counts. The first alleged that, on September 25, 1941, he was a person previously convicted of a crime of violence -- robbery while armed5 -- and that he received and possessed a firearm, described in the indictment, "which firearm had theretofore been shipped and transported in interstate commerce." The second repeated the allegation of previous conviction and charged that, on September 25, 1941, he received and possessed certain cartridges which "had been theretofore shipped and transported in interstate commerce." The Government's proof was that Delia had been convicted of armed robbery and, on September 25, 1941, had in his possession a loaded revolver which had been manufactured in Massachusetts prior to 1920; that some of the cartridges in the pistol had been manufactured in Ohio and some in Germany, the former after 1934 and the latter at an unknown date. The respondent testified that he had, at about the time of his arrest, picked up the revolver when it was dropped by a person who attacked him, but there was testimony which tended to contradict

Page 466

this defense. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction on each count.6

Both courts below held that the offense created by the Act is confined to the receipt of firearms or ammunition as a part of interstate transportation, and does not extend to the receipt, in an intrastate transaction, of such articles which, at some prior time, have been transported interstate. The Government agrees that this construction is correct. There remains for decision the question of the power of Congress to create the presumption which § 2(f) declares, namely, that, from the prisoner's prior conviction of a crime of violence and his present possession of a firearm or ammunition, it shall be presumed (1) that the article was received by him in interstate or foreign commerce, and (2) that such receipt occurred subsequent to July 30, 1938, the effective date of the statute.

The Government argues that the presumption created by the statute meets the tests of due process heretofore laid down by this court. The defendants assert that it fails to meet them because there is no rational connection between the facts proved and the ultimate fact presumed, that the statute is more than a regulation of the order of proof based upon the relative accessibility of evidence to prosecution and defense, and casts an unfair and practically impossible burden of persuasion upon the defendant.

An indictment charges the defendant with action or failure to act contrary to the law's command. It does not constitute proof of the commission of the offense. Proof of some sort on the part of the prosecutor is requisite to a finding of guilt; it may consist of testimony of those who witnessed the defendant's conduct. Although the Government may be unable to produce testimony of eye-witnesses

Page 467

to the conduct on which guilt depends, this does not mean that it cannot produce proof sufficient to support a verdict. The jury is permitted to infer from one fact the existence of another essential to guilt if reason and experience support the inference. In many circumstances, courts hold that proof of the first fact furnishes a basis for inference of the existence of the second.7

The rules of evidence, however, are established not alone by the courts, but [63 S.Ct. 1245] by the legislature. The Congress has power to prescribe what evidence is to be received in the courts of the United States.8 The section under consideration is such legislation. But the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments set limits upon the power of Congress or that of a state legislature to make the proof of one fact or group of facts evidence of the existence of the ultimate fact on which guilt is predicated. The question is whether, in this instance, the Act transgresses those limits.

The Government seems to argue that there are two alternative tests of the validity of a presumption created by statute. The first is that there be a rational connection between the facts proved and the fact presumed; the second, that of comparative convenience of producing evidence of the ultimate fact. We are of opinion that these are not independent tests, but that the first is controlling, and the second but a corollary. Under our decisions, a statutory presumption cannot be sustained if there be no rational connection between the fact proved and the ultimate fact presumed, if the inference of the one from proof of the other is arbitrary because of lack of connection

Page 468

between the two in common experience.9 This is not to say that a valid presumption may not be created upon a view of relation broader than that a jury might take in a specific case.10 But where the inference is so strained as not to have a reasonable relation to the circumstances of life as we know them, it is not competent for the legislature to create it as a rule...

To continue reading

Request your trial