420 U.S. 671 (1975), 73-1123, United States v. Feola

Docket Nº:No. 73-1123
Citation:420 U.S. 671, 95 S.Ct. 1255, 43 L.Ed.2d 541
Party Name:United States v. Feola
Case Date:March 19, 1975
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 671

420 U.S. 671 (1975)

95 S.Ct. 1255, 43 L.Ed.2d 541

United States

v.

Feola

No. 73-1123

United States Supreme Court

March 19, 1975

Argued November 19, 1974

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent and others were convicted in a jury trial of violating 18 U.S.C. § 111 for having assaulted federal officers (here undercover narcotics agents) in the performance of their official duties, and of conspiring to commit that offense, in violation of the general conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 371. The trial court had instructed the jurors that, in order to find any of the defendants guilty on either the conspiracy count or the substantive count, they were not required to conclude that the defendants were aware that their quarry were federal officers. The Court of Appeals approved the instructions on the substantive charges but, in reliance on United States v. Crimmins, 123 F.2d 271,. and its progeny, reversed the conspiracy convictions on the ground that the trial court had erred in not charging that knowledge of the victim's official identity must be proved in order to convict on the § 371 charge.

Held:

1. Section 111, which was enacted both to protect federal officers and federal functions and to provide a federal forum in which to try alleged offenders, requires no more than proof of an intent to assault, not of an intent to assault a federal officer; and it was not necessary under the substantive statute to prove that respondent and his confederates knew that their victims were federal officers. Pp. 676-686.

2. Where knowledge of the facts giving rise to federal jurisdiction is not necessary for conviction of a substantive offense embodying a mens rea requirement, such knowledge is equally irrelevant to questions of responsibility for conspiring to commit the offense. Thus, in this case, where proof of knowledge that the intended victims were federal officers was not necessary to convict under § 111, such knowledge did not have to be proved to convict under § 371. Pp. 686-696.

(a) There is nothing on the face of § 371 that would appear to require a greater degree of knowledge of the official status of the victim than is required in the case of the substantive statute, and at least two decisions repudiate respondent's contentions to the

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contrary, In re Coy, 127 U.S. 731; United States v. Freed, 401 U.S. 601. Pp. 687-688.

(b) The principle of the Crimmins case, supra, that to permit conspiratorial liability where the conspirators were ignorant of the federal implications of their acts would be to enlarge their agreement beyond its terms as they understood them, has no bearing on a case like the instant one where the substantive offense, assault, is not of the type [95 S.Ct. 1258] outlawed without regard to the intent of the actor to accomplish the result that is made criminal. Nor can it be said that the acts contemplated by the conspirators are legally different from those actually performed solely because of the official identity of the victim. Pp. 688-693.

(c) Imposition of a strict "anti-federal" scienter requirement has no relationship to the purposes of the law of conspiracy, which are to protect society from the dangers of concerted criminal activity and to identify an agreement to engage in crime as sufficiently threatening to the social order to warrant its being the subject of criminal sanctions regardless of whether the crime agreed upon is actually committed. Pp. 693-694.

486 F.2d 1339, reversed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which DOUGLAS, J., joined, post, p. 696.

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the issue whether knowledge that the intended victim is a federal officer is a requisite for the crime of conspiracy, under 18 U.S.C. § 371, to commit

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an offense violative of 18 U.S.C. § 111,1 that is, an assault upon a federal officer while engaged in the performance of his official duties.

Respondent Feola and three others (Alsondo, Rosa, and Farr) were indicted for violations of §§ 371 and 111. A jury found all four defendants guilty of both charges.2 Feola received a sentence of four years for the conspiracy and one of three years, plus a $3,000 fine, for the assault. The three-year sentence, however, was suspended, and he was given three years' probation "to commence at the expiration of confinement" for the conspiracy. The respective appeals of Feola, Alsondo, and Rosa were considered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a single opinion. After an initial ruling partially to the contrary, that court affirmed the judgment of conviction on the substantive charges, but reversed the conspiracy convictions. United States v. Alsondo, 486 F.2d 1339, 1346 (1973).3 Because of a

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conflict among the federal Circuits on the scienter issue with respect to a conspiracy charge,4 we granted the Government's petition for a [95 S.Ct. 1259] writ of certiorari in Feola's case.5 416 U.S. 935 (1974).

I

The facts reveal a classic narcotics "rip-off." The details are not particularly important for our present purposes. We need note only that the evidence shows that Feola and his confederates arranged for a sale of heroin to buyers who turned out to be undercover agents for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The group planned to palm off on the purchasers, for a substantial sum, a form of sugar in place of heroin and, should that ruse fail, simply to surprise their unwitting buyers and relieve them of the cash they had brought along for payment. The plan failed when one agent, his suspicions being aroused,6 drew his revolver in time to counter an assault upon another agent from the rear.

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Instead of enjoying the rich benefits of a successful swindle, Feola and his associates found themselves charged, to their undoubted surprise, with conspiring to assault, and with assaulting, federal officers.

At the trial, the District Court, without objection from the defense, charged the jurors that, in order to find any of the defendants guilty on either the conspiracy count or the substantive one, they were not required to conclude that the defendants were aware that their quarry were federal officers.7

The Court of Appeals reversed the conspiracy convictions on a ground not advanced by any of the defendants. Although it approved the trial court's instructions to the jury on the substantive charge of assaulting a federal officer,8 it nonetheless concluded that the failure to charge that knowledge of the victim's official identity must be proved in order to convict on the conspiracy charge amounted to plain error. 486 F.2d at 1344. The court perceived itself bound by a line of cases, commencing with Judge Learned Hand's opinion in United States v. Crimmins, 123 F.2d 271 (CA2 1941), all holding

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that scienter of a factual element that confers federal jurisdiction, while unnecessary for conviction of the substantive offense, is required in order to sustain a conviction for conspiracy to commit the substantive offense. Although the court noted that the Crimmins rationale "has been criticized," 486 F.2d at 1343, and, indeed, offered no argument in support of it, it accepted "the controlling precedents somewhat reluctantly." Id. at 1344.

II

The Government's plea is for symmetry. It urges that, since criminal liability for the offense described in 18 U.S.C. § 111 does not depend on whether the assailant harbored the specific intent to [95 S.Ct. 1260] assault a federal officer, no greater scienter requirement can be engrafted upon the conspiracy offense, which is merely an agreement to commit the act proscribed by § 111. Consideration of the Government's contention requires us preliminarily to pass upon its premise, the proposition that responsibility for assault upon a federal officer does not depend upon whether the assailant was aware of the official identity of his victim at the time he acted.

That the "federal officer" requirement is anything other than jurisdictional9 is not seriously urged upon us; indeed,

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both Feola10 and the Court of Appeals, 486 F.2d at 1342, concede that scienter is not a necessary element of the substantive offense under § 111. Although some early case were to the contrary,11 the concession recognizes what is now the practical unanimity of the Courts of Appeals.12 Nevertheless, we are not always guided by concessions of the parties, and the very considerations of symmetry urged by the Government suggest that we first turn our attention to the substantive offense.

The Court has considered § 111 before. In Ladner v. United States, 358 U.S. 169 (1958), the issue was whether a single shotgun blast which wounded two federal agents effected multiple assaults, within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 254 (1940 ed.), one of the statutory predecessors to the present § 111.13 The Government urged that

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§ 254 had been intended not only to deter interference with federal law enforcement activities but, as well, to forestall injury to individual officers, as "wards" of the United States. Given the latter formulation of legislative intent, argued the Government, a single blast wounding two officers would constitute two offenses. The Court disagreed, because it found an equally plausible reading of the legislative intent to be that

the congressional aim was to prevent hindrance to the execution of official duty . . . and was not to protect federal officers except as incident to that aim,

358 U.S. at...

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