Bell v. United States, No. 82-5119

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtPOWELL
Citation462 U.S. 356,103 S.Ct. 2398,76 L.Ed.2d 638
Decision Date13 June 1983
Docket NumberNo. 82-5119
PartiesNelson BELL, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES

462 U.S. 356
103 S.Ct. 2398
76 L.Ed.2d 638
Nelson BELL, Petitioner

v.

UNITED STATES.

No. 82-5119.
Argued April 25, 1983.
Decided June 13, 1983.
Syllabus

A provision of the Bank Robbery Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2113(b), imposes criminal sanctions on "[w]hoever takes and carries away, with intent to steal or purloin, any property or money or any other thing of value exceeding $100 belonging to, or in the care, custody, control, management, or possession of any bank, credit union, or any savings and loan association." Petitioner opened an account at a savings and loan institution using his own name, but giving a false address, birth date, and social security number. Later that day, at another branch, he deposited into his account a third party's $10,000 check on which the endorsement had been altered to show petitioner's account number. Subsequently petitioner closed his account and was paid the total balance in cash. He was convicted of violating § 2113(b) after trial in Federal District Court. The Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed, concluding that the statute embraces all felonious takings including obtaining money under false pretenses.

Held: Section 2113(b) is not limited to common-law larceny, but also proscribes petitioner's crime of obtaining money under false pretenses. Pp. 358-362.

(a) The statutory language does not suggest that it covers only common-law larceny. The language "takes and carries away" is traditional common-law language, but represents only one element of common-law larceny. It is entirely consistent with false pretenses, although not a necessary element of that crime. Moreover, other language of § 2113(b) shows an intention to go beyond common-law larceny. Section 2113(b) does not apply to a case of false pretenses in which there is not a taking and carrying away, but it proscribes petitioner's conduct here. Pp.360-361

(b) The legislative history of § 2113(b) also suggests that Congress intended the statute to reach petitioner's conduct. The congressional purpose was to protect banks from those who wished to steal banks' assets—even if they used no force in doing so. Pp. 361-362.

678 F.2d 547 (5 Cir.1982), affirmed.

Page 357

Roy W. Allman, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for petitioner.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue presented is whether 18 U.S.C. § 2113(b), a provision of the Federal Bank Robbery Act, proscribes the crime of obtaining money under false pretenses.

I

On October 13, 1978, a Cincinnati man wrote a check for $10,000 drawn on a Cincinnati bank. He endorsed the check for deposit to his account at Dade Federal Savings & Loan of Miami and mailed the check to an agent there. The agent never received the check. On October 17, petitioner Nelson Bell opened an account at a Dade Federal branch and deposited $50—the minimum amount necessary for new accounts. He used his own name, but gave a false address, birth date, and social security number. Later that day, at another branch, he deposited the Cincinnati man's $10,000 check into this new account. The endorsement had been altered to show Bell's account number. Dade Federal accepted the deposit, but put a 20-day hold on the funds. On November 7, as soon as the hold had expired, Bell returned to the branch at which he had opened the account. The total balance, with accrued interest, was then slightly over $10,080. Bell closed the account and was paid the total balance in cash.

Bell was apprehended and charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 2113(b). The statute provides, in relevant part:

"Whoever takes and carries away, with intent to steal or purloin, any property or money or any other thing of value exceeding $100 belonging to, or in the care, custody, control, management, or possession of any bank,

Page 358

credit union, or any savings and loan association, shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both . . . ."

Bell was convicted after a jury trial in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

On appeal, a divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the conviction on the ground that there was insufficient evidence of specific intent. 649 F.2d 281 (1981). The en banc court granted the Government's petition for rehearing, however, and affirmed the conviction. 678 F.2d 547 (1982) (Unit B). In so doing, it concluded that the statute embraces all felonious takings—including obtaining money under false pretenses. The court thus rejected Bell's argument that § 2113(b) is limited to common-law larceny. Id., at 548-549. Because this conclusion is inconsistent with that reached in United States v. Feroni, 655 F.2d 707, 708-711 (CA6 1981), and LeMasters v. United States, 378 F.2d 262, 267-268 (CA9 1967), we granted certiorari to resolve the conflict.1 459 U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct. 444, 74 L.Ed.2d 600 (1982). We now affirm.

II

In the 13th century, larceny was limited to trespassory taking: a thief committed larceny only if he feloniously "took and carried away" another's personal property from his possession. The goal was more to prevent breaches of the peace than losses of property, and violence was more likely when property was taken from the owner's actual possession.

Page 359

As the common law developed, protection of property also became an important goal. The definition of larceny accordingly was expanded by judicial interpretation to include cases where the owner merely was deemed to be in possession. Thus when a bailee of packaged goods broke open the packages and misappropriated the contents, he committed larceny. The Carrier's Case, Y.B.Pasch. 13 Edw. IV, f. 9, pl. 5 (Star Ch. and Exch. Ch. 1473), reprinted in 64 Selden Society 30 (1945). The bailor was deemed to be in possessi n of the contents of the packages, at least by the time of the misappropriation. Similarly, a thief committed "larceny by trick" when he obtained custody of a horse by telling the owner that he intended to use it for one purpose when he in fact intended to sell it and to keep the proceeds. King v. Pear, 1 Leach 212, 168 Eng.Rep. 208 (Cr.Cas.Res.1779). The judges accepted the fiction that the owner retained possession of the horse until it was sold, on the theory that the thief had custody only for a limited purpose. Id., at 213-214, 168 Eng.Rep., at 209.

By the late 18th century, courts were less willing to expand common-law definitions. Thus when a bank clerk retained money given to him by a customer rather than depositing it in the bank, he was not guilty of larceny, for the bank had not been in possession of the money. King v. Bazeley, 2 Leach 835, 168 Eng.Rep. 517 (Cr.Cas.Res.1799). Statutory crimes such as embezzlement and obtaining property by false pretenses therefore were created to fill this gap.2

The theoretical distinction between false pretenses and larceny by trick may be stated simply. If a thief, through his trickery, acquired title to the property from the owner, he has obtained property by false pretenses; but if he merely acquired possession from the owner, he has committed larceny

Page 360

by trick. See LaFave & Scott, supra n. 2, at 660-662. In this case the parties agree that Bell is guilty of obtaining money by false pretenses. When the teller at Dade Federal handed him $10,080 in cash, Bell acquired title to the money. The only dispute is whether 18 U.S.C. § 2113(b) proscribes the crime of false pretenses, or whether the statute is instead limited to common-law larceny.

III
A.

Bell's argument in favor of the narrower reading of § 2113(b) relies principally on the statute's use of the traditional common-law language "takes and carries away." He cites the rule of statutory construction that when a federal criminal statute uses a common-law term without defining it, Congress is presumed to intend the common-law meaning. See United States v. Turley, 352 U.S. 407, 411, 77 S.Ct. 397, 399, 1 L.Ed.2d 430 (1957). In § 2113(b), however, Congress has not adopted the elements of larceny in common-law terms. The language "takes and carries away" is but one part of the statute and represents only one element of common-law larceny. Other language in § 2113(b), such as "with intent to steal or purloin," has no established meaning at common law. See Turley, supra, at 411-412, 77 S.Ct., at 399-400. Moreover, "taking and carrying away," although not a necessary element of the crime, is entirely consistent with false pretenses.

Two other aspects of § 2113(b) show an intention to go beyond the common-law definition of larceny. First, common-law larceny was limited to thefts of tangible personal property. This limitation excluded, for example, the theft of a written instrument embodying a chose in action. LaFave & Scott 633. Section 2113(b) is thus broader than common-law larceny, for it covers "any property or money or any other thing of value exceeding $100." Second, and of particular relevance to the distinction at issue here, common-law larceny required a theft from the possession of

Page 361

the owner. When the definition was expanded, it still applied only when the owner was deemed to be in possession. Section 2113(b), however, goes well beyond even this expanded definition. It applies when the property "belong[s] to," or is "in the care, custody, control, management, or possession of," a covered institution.

In sum, the statutory language does not suggest that it covers only common-law larceny. Although § 2113(b) does not apply to a case of false pretenses in which...

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465 practice notes
  • Marquez v. United States, EP-18-CV-112-FM
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Western District of Texas
    • September 10, 2019
    ...establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.' United States v. Bell, 678 F.2d 547, 549 (5th Cir. 1982) (en banc), aff'd on other grounds, 462 U.S. 356, 103 S. Ct. 2398, 76 L.Ed.2d 638 (1983) (footnote omitted). In doing so, we must view the evidence and the inferences that may be drawn from......
  • U.S. v. Khoury, No. 86-5175
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • May 21, 1990
    ...F.2d 547, 549 (5th Cir. Unit B 1982) (en banc) (discussing history of sufficiency of the evidence standard in the Fifth Circuit), aff'd., 462 U.S. 356, 103 S.Ct. 2398, 76 L.Ed.2d 638 (1983)). See also United States v. Sawyer, 799 F.2d 1494, 1501 (11th Cir.1986), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1069,......
  • White v. State, 4 Div. 966
    • United States
    • Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals
    • March 31, 1989
    ...on circumstantial evidence is confusing and incorrect."); United States v. Bell, 678 F.2d 547, 549, n. 3 (5th Cir.1982), affirmed, 462 U.S. 356, 103 S.Ct. 2398, 76 L.Ed.2d 638 (1983). "It is not necessary that the evidence exclude every reasonable hypothesis of innocence or be wholly incons......
  • U.S. v. Cole, No. 82-5455
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • March 19, 1985
    ...guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. United States v. Bell, 678 F.2d 547, 549 (5th Cir. Unit B 1982) (en banc), aff'd on other grounds, 462 U.S. 356, 103 S.Ct. 2398, 76 L.Ed.2d 638 (1983). The government, however, need not prove that the facts of the case are inconsistent with the defense's the......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
465 cases
  • Marquez v. United States, EP-18-CV-112-FM
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Western District of Texas
    • September 10, 2019
    ...establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.' United States v. Bell, 678 F.2d 547, 549 (5th Cir. 1982) (en banc), aff'd on other grounds, 462 U.S. 356, 103 S. Ct. 2398, 76 L.Ed.2d 638 (1983) (footnote omitted). In doing so, we must view the evidence and the inferences that may be drawn from......
  • U.S. v. Khoury, No. 86-5175
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • May 21, 1990
    ...F.2d 547, 549 (5th Cir. Unit B 1982) (en banc) (discussing history of sufficiency of the evidence standard in the Fifth Circuit), aff'd., 462 U.S. 356, 103 S.Ct. 2398, 76 L.Ed.2d 638 (1983)). See also United States v. Sawyer, 799 F.2d 1494, 1501 (11th Cir.1986), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1069,......
  • White v. State, 4 Div. 966
    • United States
    • Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals
    • March 31, 1989
    ...on circumstantial evidence is confusing and incorrect."); United States v. Bell, 678 F.2d 547, 549, n. 3 (5th Cir.1982), affirmed, 462 U.S. 356, 103 S.Ct. 2398, 76 L.Ed.2d 638 (1983). "It is not necessary that the evidence exclude every reasonable hypothesis of innocence or be wholly incons......
  • U.S. v. Cole, No. 82-5455
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • March 19, 1985
    ...guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. United States v. Bell, 678 F.2d 547, 549 (5th Cir. Unit B 1982) (en banc), aff'd on other grounds, 462 U.S. 356, 103 S.Ct. 2398, 76 L.Ed.2d 638 (1983). The government, however, need not prove that the facts of the case are inconsistent with the defense's the......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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