355 U.S. 286 (1958), 35, United States v. Sharpnack

Docket Nº:No. 35
Citation:355 U.S. 286, 78 S.Ct. 291, 2 L.Ed.2d 282
Party Name:United States v. Sharpnack
Case Date:January 13, 1958
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 286

355 U.S. 286 (1958)

78 S.Ct. 291, 2 L.Ed.2d 282

United States



No. 35

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 13, 1958

Argued October 29, 1957




The Assimilative Crimes Act of 1948, 18 U.S.C. § 13, is constitutional insofar as it makes applicable to a federal enclave a subsequently enacted criminal law of the State in which the enclave is situated. Pp. 286-297.

Reversed and remanded.

BURTON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BURTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether the Assimilative Crimes Act of 1948, 18 U.S.C. § 13, is constitutional insofar as it makes applicable to a federal enclave a subsequently enacted criminal law of the State in which the enclave is situated. For the reasons hereafter stated, we hold that it is constitutional.

A four-count indictment, in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, charged the appellee, Sharpnack, with committing sex crimes involving two boys in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 13, and arts. 535b and 535c of Vernon's Texas Penal Code 1952. The offenses were charged to have been committed in 1955 at the Randolph Air Force Base, a federal enclave in Texas.

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Articles 535b and 535c had been enacted in 1950, and, at the time of the commission of the alleged offenses, were in force throughout the State. Also, since 1948, the Federal Assimilative Crimes Act has provided that, within such an enclave, acts not punishable by any enactment of Congress are punishable by the then effective laws of the State in which the enclave is situated.1 Nevertheless, upon motion of Sharpnack, the District Court, in an unreported order, dismissed the indictment

for the reason that Congress may not legislatively assimilate and adopt criminal statutes of a state which are enacted by the state subsequent to the enactment of the Federal Assimilative Statute.2

The United States appealed to this Court under 18 U.S.C. § 3731, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 352 U.S. 962.

The 1948 Assimilative Crimes Act was enacted as part of the Revised Criminal [78 S.Ct. 293] Code of the United States, and reads as follows:

§ 13. Laws of states adopted for areas within federal jurisdiction.

Whoever within or upon any of the places now existing or hereafter reserved or acquired as provided

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in section 73 of this title, is guilty of any act or omission which, although not made punishable by any enactment of Congress, would be punishable if committed or omitted within the jurisdiction of the State, Territory, Possession, or District in which such place is situated, by the laws thereof in force at the time of such act or omission, shall be guilty of a like offense and subject to a like punishment.

18 U.S.C..

In the absence of restriction in the cessions of the respective enclaves to the United States, the power of Congress to exercise legislative jurisdiction over them is clearly stated in Article I, § 8, cl. 17, and Article IV, § 3, cl. 2, of the Constitution.4 See Collins v. Yosemite Park Co., 304 U.S. 518. The first Federal Crimes Act, enacted in 1790, 1 Stat. 112, defined a number of federal crimes and referred to federal enclaves. The need for dealing

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more extensively with criminal offenses in the enclaves was evident, and one natural solution was to adopt for each enclave the offenses made punishable by the State in which it was situated. See United States v. Press Publishing Co., 219 U.S. 1, 9-13. Initially, there was room for a difference of opinion as to the desirability of doing this by blanket legislation, rather than by a code enumerating and defining specific offenses applicable to the enclaves. Congress made its initial decision on this point in 1825 by adopting for otherwise undefined offenses the policy of general conformity to local law. On repeated occasions thereafter, Congress has confirmed that policy by enacting an unbroken series of Assimilative Crimes Acts. During the same period, Congress has recognized a slowly increasing number of federal crimes in the field of major offenses by enacting for the enclaves specific criminal statutes which have defined those crimes and, to that [78 S.Ct. 294] extent, have excluded the state laws from that field.5

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In the Act of 1825, sponsored by Daniel Webster in the House of Representatives, Congress expressly adopted the fundamental policy of conformity to local law.6 That Act provided the basis from which has grown the Assimilative Crimes Act now before us. Congress thereby made it clear that, with the exception of the enlarged list of offenses specifically proscribed by it, the federal offenses in each enclave were to be identical with those proscribed by the State in which the enclave was situated. That Act made no specific reference to subsequent repeals or amendments by the State of any assimilated laws. It also made no specific reference to new offenses that might be added by the State after the enactment of the Assimilative Crimes Act.

In 1831, there was certified by a Circuit Court to this Court in United States v. Paul, 6 Pet. 141, the concrete question whether, under the Assimilative Crimes Act of 1825, a statute enacted in 1829 by the State of New York, defining a new offense to be known as burglary in the third degree, was applicable to the federal enclave at West Point. The question was submitted without argument, and this Court's answer is reported in full as follows:

Mr. Chief Justice Marshall stated it to be the opinion of the Court, that the third section of the

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act of Congress, entitled "an act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes," passed March 3, 1825, is to be limited to the laws of the several states in force at the time of its enactment. This was ordered to be certified to the Circuit Court for the southern district of New York.

Id. at 142.

There is nothing in that answer or in the report of the case to show that the issue was decided as anything more than one of statutory construction falling within the doctrine calling for the narrow construction of a penal statute. So interpreted, the decision did not reach the issue that is before us. It did, however, carry a fair implication that the Act of 1825 was constitutional insofar as it made applicable to enclaves the criminal laws in force in the respective States at the time of the enactment of the Assimilative Crimes Act. This Court later so held in Franklin v. United States, 216 U.S. 559.

Due to the limitation of the Assimilative Crimes Act of 1825 to state laws in force at the time of its own enactment, [78 S.Ct. 295] the Act gradually lost much of its effectiveness in maintaining current conformity with state criminal laws. This result has been well called one of static conformity. To renew such conformity, Congress has enacted comparable Assimilative Crimes Acts in 1866, 14 Stat. 13; in 1874 as R.S. § 5391; in 1898, 30 Stat. 717; in 1909 as § 289 of the Criminal Code, 35 Stat. 1145; in 1933, 48 Stat. 152; in 1935, 49 Stat. 394; in 1940, 54 Stat. 234; and, finally, in 1948, in the Revised Criminal Code as 18 U.S.C. § 13.

The above series of substantial reenactments demonstrates a consistent congressional purpose to apply the principle of conformity to state criminal laws in punishing most minor offenses committed within federal enclaves. In the reenactments of 1866, 1874, 1898, and 1909, the interpretation given the Act of 1825 by the Paul

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case was made explicit by expressly limiting the assimilation to the state laws "now in force," or as the "laws of the State . . . now provide...

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