354 U.S. 298 (1957), 6, Yates v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 6
Citation:354 U.S. 298, 77 S.Ct. 1064, 1 L.Ed.2d 1356
Party Name:Yates v. United States
Case Date:June 17, 1957
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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354 U.S. 298 (1957)

77 S.Ct. 1064, 1 L.Ed.2d 1356

Yates

v.

United States

No. 6

United States Supreme Court

June 17, 1957

Argued October 8-9, 1956

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

The 14 petitioners, leaders of the Communist Party in California, were indicted in 1951 in a Federal District Court under § 3 of the Smith Act and 18 U.S.C. § 371 for conspiring (1) to advocate and teach the duty and necessity of overthrowing the Government of the United States by force and violence, and (2) to organize, as the Communist Party of the United States, a society of persons who so advocate and teach, all with the intent of causing the overthrow of the Government by force and violence as speedily as circumstances would permit. The indictment charged that the conspiracy originated in 1940 and continued down to the date of the indictment, and that, in carrying it out, petitioners and their coconspirators would (a) become members and officers of the Communist Party, with knowledge of its unlawful purposes, and assume leadership in carrying out its policies and activities, (b) cause to be organized units of the Party in California and elsewhere, (c) write and publish articles on such advocacy and teaching, (d) conduct schools for the indoctrination of Party members in such advocacy and teaching, and (e) recruit new Party members, particularly from among persons employed in the key industries of the Nation. It also alleged 23 overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy. Petitioners were convicted after a jury trial, and their convictions were sustained by the Court of Appeals.

Held: The convictions are reversed, and the cause is remanded to the District Court with directions to enter judgments of acquittal as to five of the petitioners and to grant a new trial as to the others. Pp. 300-338.

1. Since the Communist Party came into being in 1945, and the indictment was not returned until 1951, the three-year statute of limitations had run on the "organizing" charge, and required the withdrawal of that part of the indictment from the jury's consideration. Pp. 303-312.

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(a) Applying the rule that criminal statutes are to be construed strictly, the word "organize," as used in the Smith Act, is construed as referring only to acts entering into the creation of a new organization, and not to acts thereafter performed in carrying on its activities, even though the latter may loosely be termed "organizational." Pp. 303-311.

(b) The trial court's mistaken construction of the word "organize" was not harmless error; the circumstances are such as to call for application of the rule which requires a verdict to be set aside where it is supportable on one ground, but not another, and it is impossible to tell which ground the jury selected. Pp. 311-312.

2. The Smith Act does not prohibit advocacy and teaching of forcible overthrow of the Government as an abstract principle, divorced from any effort to instigate action to that end; the trial court's charge to the jury furnished wholly inadequate guidance on this central point in the case, and the conviction cannot be allowed to stand. Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, distinguished. Pp. 312-327.

3. The evidence against five of the petitioners is so clearly insufficient that their acquittal should be ordered, but that as to the others is such as not to justify closing the way to their retrial. Pp. 327-334.

4. Determinations favorable to petitioner Schneiderman made by this Court in Schneiderman v. United States, 320 U.S. 118, a denaturalization proceeding in which he was the prevailing party, are not conclusive in this proceeding under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, and he is not entitled to a judgment of acquittal on that ground. Federal Trade Commission v. Cement Institute, 333 U.S. 683. Pp. 335-338.

225 F.2d 146, reversed and remanded.

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HARLAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

We brought these cases here to consider certain questions arising under the Smith Act which have not heretofore been passed upon by this Court, and otherwise to review the convictions of these petitioners for conspiracy to violate that Act. Among other things, the convictions are claimed to rest upon an application of the Smith Act which is hostile to the principles upon which its constitutionality was upheld in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494.

These 14 petitioners stand convicted, after a jury trial in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California, upon a single count indictment charging them with conspiring (1) to advocate and teach the duty and necessity of overthrowing the Government of the United States by force and violence, and (2) to organize, as the Communist Party of the United States, a society of persons who so advocate and teach, all with the intent of causing the overthrow of the Government by force and violence as speedily as circumstances would permit. Act of June 28, 1940, § 2(a)(1) and (3), 54

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Stat. 670, 671, 18 U.S.C. §§ 371, 2385.1 The conspiracy is alleged to have [77 S.Ct. 1068] originated in 1940 and continued down to the date of the indictment in 1951. The indictment charged that, in carrying out the conspiracy, the defendants

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and their co-conspirators would (a) become members and officers of the Communist Party, with knowledge of its unlawful purposes, and assume leadership in carrying out its policies and activities; (b) cause to be organized units of the Party in California and elsewhere; (c) write and publish, in the "Daily Worker" and other Party organs, articles on the proscribed advocacy and teaching; (d) conduct schools for the indoctrination of Party members in such advocacy and teaching, and (e) recruit new Party members, particularly from among persons employed in the key industries of the nation. Twenty-three overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy were alleged.

Upon conviction, each of the petitioners was sentenced to five years' imprisonment and a fine of $10,000. The

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Court of Appeals affirmed. 225 F.2d 146. We granted certiorari for the reasons already indicated. 350 U.S. 860.

In the view we take of this case, it is necessary for us to consider only the following of petitioners' contentions: (1) that the term "organize," as used in the Smith Act, was erroneously construed by the two lower courts; (2) that the trial court's instructions to the jury erroneously excluded from the case the issue of "incitement to action"; (3) that the evidence was so insufficient as to require this Court to direct the acquittal of these petitioners, and (4) that petitioner Schneiderman's conviction was precluded by this Court's judgment in Schneiderman v. United States, 320 U.S. 118, under the doctrine of collateral estoppel.2 For reasons given hereafter, we conclude that these convictions must be reversed [77 S.Ct. 1069] and the case remanded to the District Court with instructions to enter judgments of acquittal as to certain of the petitioners, and to grant a new trial as to the rest.

I. The Term "Organize"

One object of the conspiracy charged was to violate the third paragraph of 18 U.S.C. § 2385, which provides:

Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any [government in the United States] by force or violence . . . [s]hall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.3

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Petitioners claim that "organize" means to "establish," "found," or "bring into existence," and that, in this sense, the Communist Party4 was organized by 1945 at the latest.5 On this basis, petitioners contend that this part of the indictment, returned in 1951, was barred by the three-year statute of limitations.6 The Government, on the other hand, says that "organize" connotes a continuing process which goes on throughout the life of an organization, and that, in the words of the trial court's instructions to the jury, the term includes such things as "the recruiting of new members and the forming of new units, and the regrouping or expansion of existing clubs, classes and other units of any society, party, group or other organization." The two courts below accepted the Government's position. We think, however, that petitioners' position must prevail, upon principles stated by Chief Justice Marshall more than a century ago in United States v. Wiltberger, 5 Wheat. 76, 95-96, as follows:

The rule that penal laws are to be construed strictly is perhaps not much less old than construction itself. It is founded on the tenderness of the law for the rights of individuals, and on the plain principle that the power of punishment is vested in the legislative, not in the judicial, department. It is the legislature, not the Court, which is to define a crime, and ordain its punishment.

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It is said that, notwithstanding this rule, the intention of the lawmaker must govern in the construction of penal as well as other statutes. This is true. But this is not a new independent rule which subverts the old. It is a modification of the ancient maxim, and amounts to this: that, though penal laws are to be construed strictly, they are not to be construed so strictly as to defeat the obvious intention of the legislature. The maxim is not to be so applied as to narrow the words of the statute to the exclusion of cases which those words, in their ordinary acceptation, or in that sense in which the legislature has obviously used them, would comprehend. The intention of the legislature is to be collected from the words they employ. Where there is no ambiguity in the words, there is no room for construction. The case must be a strong one indeed which [77 S.Ct. 1070] would justify a Court in departing from the plain...

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