322 U.S. 4 (1944), 345, Pollock v. Williams

Docket Nº:No. 345
Citation:322 U.S. 4, 64 S.Ct. 792, 88 L.Ed. 1095
Party Name:Pollock v. Williams
Case Date:April 10, 1944
Court:United States Supreme Court

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322 U.S. 4 (1944)

64 S.Ct. 792, 88 L.Ed. 1095




No. 345

United States Supreme Court

April 10,1944

Argued February 10, 1944



1. A statute of Florida which makes guilty of a misdemeanor any person who, with intent to defraud, obtains an advance upon an agreement to render services, and which provides further that failure to perform the services for which an advance was obtained shall be prima facie evidence of intent to defraud, held violative of the Thirteenth Amendment and the federal Anti-peonage Act. Pp. 5, 17.

2. In view of the history and operation of the Florida statute, it cannot be said that a plea of guilty is uninfluenced by the statute's threat to convict by its prima facie evidence section; hence, the entire statute is invalid, and a conviction under it, though based upon a plea of guilty, cannot be sustained. P. 15.

3. That, upon a trial of the defendant, his testimony in respect of his intent would have been competent is immaterial. P. 25.

153 Fla. 338, 14 So.2d 700, reversed.

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Appeal from the reversal of a judgment which, upon a writ of habeas corpus, discharged the prisoner, appellant here.

JACKSON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellant Pollock questions the validity of a statute of the State of Florida making it a misdemeanor to induce advances with intent to defraud by a promise to perform labor and further making failure to perform labor for which money has been obtained prima facie evidence of intent to defraud.1 It conflicts, he says, with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, and with the anti-peonage statute enacted by Congress thereunder. Claims also are made under the due process and equal

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protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment which we find it unnecessary to consider.

Pollock was arrested January 5, 1943, on a warrant issued three days before which charged that, on the 17th of October, 1942, he did,

with intent to injure and defraud under and by reason of a contract and promise to perform labor and service, procure and obtain money, to-wit: the sum of $5.00, as advances from one J. V. O'Albora, a corporation, contrary to the statute in such cases made and provided, and [64 S.Ct. 794] against the peace and dignity of the State of Florida.

He was taken before the county judge on the same day, entered a plea of guilty, and was sentenced to pay a fine of $100 and, in default, to serve sixty days in the county jail. He was immediately committed.

On January 11, 1943, a writ of habeas corpus was issued by the judge of the circuit court, directed to the jail keeper, who is appellee here. Petition for the writ challenged the constitutionality of the statutes under which Pollock was confined, and set forth that,

at the trial aforesaid, he was not told that he was entitled to counsel, and that counsel would be provided for him if he wished, and he did not know that he had such right. Petitioner was without funds and unable to employ counsel. He further avers that he did not understand the nature of the charge against him, but understood that, if he owed any money to his prior employer and had quit his employment without paying the same, he was guilty, which facts he admitted.

The Sheriff's return makes no denial of these allegations, but merely sets forth that he holds the prisoner by virtue of the commitment "based upon the judgment and conviction as set forth in the petition." The Supreme Court of Florida has said that "undenied allegations of the petition are taken as true."2

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The Circuit Court held the statutes under which the case was prosecuted to be unconstitutional, and discharged the prisoner. The Supreme Court of Florida reversed.3 It read our decisions in Bailey v. Alabama4 and Taylor v. Georgia5 to hold that similar laws are not in conflict with the Constitution insofar as they denounce the crime, but only in declaring the prima facie evidence rule. It stated that its first impression was that the entire Florida act would fall, as did that of Georgia, but, on reflection, it concluded that our decisions were called forth by operation of the presumption, and did not condemn the substantive part of the statute where the presumption was not brought into play. As the prisoner had pleaded guilty, the Florida court thought the presumption had played no part in this case, and therefore remanded the prisoner to custody. An appeal to this Court was taken, and probable jurisdiction noted.6

Florida advances no argument that the presumption section of this statute is constitutional, nor could it plausibly do so in view of our decisions. It contends, however, (1) that we can give no consideration to the presumption section, because it was not in fact brought into play in the case, by reason of the plea of guilty; (2) that, so severed, the section denouncing the crime is constitutional.


These issues emerge from an historical background against which the Florida legislation in question must be appraised.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, made in 1865, declares that involuntary servitude

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shall not exist within the United States, and gives Congress power to enforce the article by appropriate legislation.7 Congress, on March 2, 1867, enacted that all laws or usages of any state

by virtue of which any attempt shall hereafter be made to establish, maintain, or enforce, directly or indirectly, the voluntary or involuntary service or labor of any persons as peons, in liquidation of any debt or obligation, or otherwise

are null and void, and denounced it as a crime to hold, arrest, or return a person to the condition of peonage.8 Congress thus raised both a shield and a sword [64 S.Ct. 795] against forced labor because of debt.

Clyatt v. United States was a case from Florida in which the Federal Act was used as a sword and an employer

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convicted under it. This Court sustained it as constitutional, and said of peonage:

It may be defined as a status or condition of compulsory service based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master. The basal fact is indebtedness. . . . Peonage is sometimes classified as voluntary or involuntary, but this implies simply a difference in the mode of origin, but none in the character of the servitude. The one exists where the debtor voluntarily contracts to enter the service of his creditor. The other is forced upon the debtor by some provision of law. . . . A clear distinction exists between peonage and the voluntary performance of labor or rendering of services in payment of a debt. In the latter case, the debtor, though contracting to pay his indebtedness by labor or service, and subject, like any other contractor, to an action for damages for breach of that contract, can elect at any time to break it, and no law or force compels performance or a continuance of the service.9

Then came the twice-considered case of Bailey v. Alabama,10 in which the Act and the Constitution were raised as a shield against conviction of a laborer under an Alabama act substantially the same as the one before us now. Bailey, a Negro, had obtained $15 from a corporation on a written agreement to work for a year at $12 per month, $10.75 to be paid him and $1.25 per month to apply on his debt. In about a month, he quit. He was convicted, fined $30, or, in default, sentenced to hard labor for 20 days in lieu of the fine and 116 days on account of costs. The Court considered that the portion of the state law defining the crime would require proof of intent to defraud, and so did not strike down that part; nor was it expressly sustained, nor was it necessarily reached, for the prima facie evidence provision had been used to obtain a conviction.

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This Court held the presumption, in such a context, to be unconstitutional.

Later came United States v. Reynolds and United States v. Broughton,11 in which the Act of 1867 was sword again. Reynolds and Broughton were indicted under it. The Alabama Code authorized one under some circumstances to become surety for a convict, pay his fine, and be reimbursed by labor. Reynolds and Broughton each got himself a convict to work out fines and costs as a farmhand at $6.00 per month. After a time, each convict refused to labor further, and, under the statute, each was convicted for the refusal. This Court said, "[t]hus, under pain of recurring prosecutions, the convict may be kept at labor to satisfy the demands of his employer." It held the Alabama statute unconstitutional, and employers under it subject to prosecution.

In Taylor v. Georgia,12 the Federal Act was again applied as a shield, [64 S.Ct. 796] against conviction by resort to the presumption, of a Negro laborer, under a Georgia statute in effect like the one before us now. We made no effort to separate valid from invalid elements in the statute, although the substantive and procedural provisions were, as here, in separate, and separately numbered, sections. We said,

We think that the sections of the Georgia Code upon which this conviction rests are repugnant to the Thirteenth Amendment and to the Act of 1867, and that the conviction must therefore be reversed.

Only recently, in a case from Northern Florida, a creditor employer was indicted under the Federal Act for arresting a debtor to peonage, and we sustained the indictment. United States v. Gaskin.13

These cases, decided by this Court under the Act of 1867, came either from Florida or one of the adjoining states.

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And these were but a part of the stir caused by the Federal Anti-peonage Act and its enforcement in this same region.14 This is not to intimate that this section, more than others, was sympathetic with peonage, for this evil has never had general approval anywhere, and its sporadic appearances have been neither sectional...

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