Berger v. United States, 544

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation79 L.Ed. 1314,55 S.Ct. 629,295 U.S. 78
Docket NumberNo. 544,544
Decision Date15 April 1935

295 U.S. 78
55 S.Ct. 629
79 L.Ed. 1314



No. 544.
Argued and submitted March 7, 1935.
Decided April 15, 1935.

Page 79

The Attorney General and Mr. Justin Miller, of Washington, D.C., for the United States.

Mr. Nathan D. Perlman, of New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. Justice SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was indicted in a federal district court charged with having conspired with seven other persons named in the indictment to utter counterfeit notes pur-

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porting to be issued by designated federal reserve banks, with knowledge that they had been counterfeited. The indictment contained eight additional counts alleging substantive offenses. Among the persons named in the indictment were Katz, Rice, and Jones. Rice and Jones were convicted by the jury upon two of the substantive counts and the conspiracy count. Petitioner was convicted upon the conspiracy count only. Katz pleaded guilty to the conspiracy count, and testified for the government upon an arrangement that a nolle prosequi as to the substantive counts would be entered. It is not necessary now to refer to the evidence further than to say that it tended to establish not a single conspiracy as charged, but two conspiracies—one between Rice and Katz and another between Berger, Jones and Katz. The only connecting link between the two was that Katz was in both conspiracies and the same counterfeit money had to do with both. There was no evidence that Berger was a party to the conspiracy between Rice and Katz. During the trial, the United States attorney who prosecuted the case for the government was guilty of misconduct, both in connection with his cross-examination of witnesses and in his argument to the jury, the particulars of which we consider at a later point in this opinion. At the conclusion of the evidence, Berger moved to dismiss the indictment as to the conspiracy count, on the ground that the evidence was insufficient to support the charge. That motion was denied. Petitioner, Rice, Katz, and Jones were sentenced to terms of imprisonment.

The Circuit Court of Appeals, affirming the judgment, 73 F.(2d) 278, held that there was a variance between the allegations of the conspiracy count and the proof, but that it was not prejudicial; and that the conduct of the prosecuting attorney, although to be condemned, was not sufficiently grave to affect the fairness of the trial. We brought the case here on certiorari because of a conflict

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with other Circuit Courts of Appeals in respect of the effect of the alleged variance. 293 U.S. 552, 55 S.Ct. 346, 79 L.Ed. —-.

1. It is settled by the great weight of authority that, although an indictment charges a conspiracy involving several persons and the proof establishes the conspiracy against some of them only, the variance is not material. But several circuit courts of appeals have held that if the indictment charges a single conspiracy, and the effect of the proof is to split the conspiracy into two, the variance is fatal. Thus it is said in Telman v. United States (C.C.A.) 67 F.(2d) 716, 718: 'Where one large conspiracy is charged, proof of different and disconnected smaller ones will not sustain a conviction.' In support of that statement the various decisions upon which petitioner here relies are cited. This view, however, ignores the question of materiality; and should be so qualified as to make the result of the variance depend upon whether it has substantially injured the defendant.

In the present case, the objection is not that the allegations of the indictment do not describe the conspiracy of which petitioner was convicted, but, in effect, it is that the proof includes more. If the proof had been confined to that conspiracy, the variance, as we have seen, would not have been fatal. Does it become so because, in addition to proof of the conspiracy with which petitioner was connected, proof of a conspiracy with which he was not connected was also furnished and made the basis of a verdict against others?

Section 269 of the Judicial Code, as amended (28 U.S.C. § 391 (28 usca § 391)) provides:

'On the hearing of any appeal, certiorari, writ of error, or motion for a new trial, in any case, civil or criminal, the court shall give judgment after an examination of the entire record before the court, without regard to technical errors, defects, or exceptions which do not affect the substantial rights of the parties.'

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The true inquiry, therefore, is not whether there has been a variance in proof, but whether there has been such a variance as to 'affect the substantial rights' of the accused. The general rule that allegations and proof must correspond is based upon the obvious requirements (1) that the accused shall be definitely informed as to the charges against him, so that he may be enabled to present his defense and not be taken by surprise by the evidence offered at the trial; and (2) that he may be protected against another prosecution for the same offense. Bennett v. United States, 227 U.S. 333, 338, 33 S.Ct. 288, 57 L.Ed. 531; Harrison v. United States (C.C.A.) 200 F. 662, 673; United States v. Wills (C.C.A.) 36 F.(2d) 855, 856, 857. Cf. Hagner v. United States, 285 U.S. 427, 431—433, 52 S.Ct. 417, 76 L.Ed. 861.

Evidently Congress intended by the amendment to section 269 to put an end to the too rigid application, sometimes made, of the rule that error being shown, prejudice must be presumed: and to establish the more reasonable rule that if, upon an examination of the entire record, substantial prejudice does not appear, the error must be regarded as harmless. See Haywood v. United States (C.C.A.) 268 F. 795, 798; Rich v. United States (C.C.A.) 271 F. 566, 569, 570.

The count in question here charges a conspiracy to utter false notes of one federal reserve bank each calling for $20, and those of another each calling for $100. The object of the utterance thus concerted is not stated; but the proof as to the conspiracies is that the one between Katz and Rice was with the purpose of uttering the false notes to buy rings from persons advertising them for sale, and the object of the other between Katz, Jones, and Berger was to pass the notes to tradesmen. Suppose the indictment had charged these two conspiracies in separate counts in identical terms, except that, in addition, it had specifically set forth the contemplated object

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of passing the notes, naming Berger, Katz, Rice, and Jones as the conspirators in each count. Suppose further that the proof had established both counts, connecting Berger with one but failing to connect him with the other, and thereupon he had been convicted of the former and acquitted of the latter. Plainly enough, his substantial rights would not have been affected. The situation supposed and that under consideration differ greatly in form; but do they differ in real substance? The proof here in respect of the conspiracy with which Berger was not connected may, as to him, be regarded as incompetent; but we are unable to find anything in the facts—which are fairly stated by the court below—or in the record from which it reasonably can be said that the proof operated to prejudice his case, or that it came as a surprise; and certainly the fact that the proof disclosed two conspiracies instead of one, each within the words of the indictment, cannot prejudice his defense of former acquittal of the one or former conviction of the other, if he should again be prosecuted.

In Washington & Georgetown R'd v. Hickey, 166 U.S. 521, 531, 17 S.Ct. 661, 665, 41 L.Ed. 1101, this court said that 'no variance ought ever to be regarded as material where the allegation and proof substantially correspond, or where the variance was not of a character which could have misled the defendant at the...

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