Browder v. United States

Decision Date17 February 1941
Docket NumberNo. 287,287
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Carl S. Stern, Carol King, and Walter H. Pollak, all of New York City, for petitioner.

Messrs. Robert H. Jackson, Atty. Gen., and John T. Cahill, of New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question is whether the use by an American citizen of a passport obtained by false statements to facilitate reentry into the United States is a 'use' within section 2 of the Passport Title of the Act of June 15, 1917,1 and, if so, whether petitioner was properly convicted of a 'willful' use. We brought the case here because of its importance in the administration of the passport laws.

Section 2 provides that whoever shall either make a false statement in an application for a passport or 'shall willfully and knowingly use * * * any passport the issue of which was secured in any way by reason of any false statement, shall be fined not more than $2,000 or imprisoned not more than five years or both.' The indictment in two counts charged that petitioner, having secured a passport by a false statement, willfully and knowingly used it on April 30, 1937, and again on February 15, 1938, each time by presenting it to an immigration inspector to gain entry into the United States. The proof showed that petitioner, a native-born American citizen, had in 1921, 1927 and 1931 obtained passports under different assumed names by means of false statements. In 1934 petitioner applied for a passport in his own name. The application blank contained the clause: 'My last passport was obtained from ...... and is submitted herewith for cancellation.' Despite the three passports previously issued to him, petitioner wrote 'none' in the blank space, then signed the application and swore to the truth of its contents. The Government issued him a passport which was later extended upon a renewal application until September 1, 1938. Returning from Europe in April, 1937, and again in February 1938, petitioner showed his passport to an inspector to identify himself and establish his citizenship and consequent right to reenter the United States. The jury convicted him on both counts for willfully using a passport secured by a false statement, and the District Court sentenced him to two years' imprisonment and a fine of $1,000 on each count, the terms to run consecutively. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.2 At the time of the indictment, the statute of limitations had run on the obtaining of the passport by a false statement, 18 U.S.C. § 582, 18 U.S.C.A. § 582.

Petitioner contends that the indictment is for the 'use' 'of a passport as truthful proof of his Kansas birth.' Since the 'use' to prove an admitted fact—his American citizenship—was innocent, it is urged, no statutory prohibition was violated. The indictment, however, charges that petitioner 'used * * * a passport * * * the issue of which he secured by reason of a false statement * * * in the application therefor.' The language of the indictment conforms to the definition of the offense in the statute, as the use of 'any passport the issue of which was secured in any way by reason of any false statement.' The balanced form of section 2, quoted above at note 1, shows that the Congress viewed with concern and punished with equal severity the securing of passports by false statements and their use. The crimes denounced are not the securing or the use but either of such actions made criminal only by the false statements in the procurement of the passport. If the misrepresentation is withdrawn nothing culpable remains in the use. A condemned use of a passport secured by the fraud seems obviously within the act.

A more difficult issue emerges from petitioner's assertion that the use proven here is not the kind of use covered by the statute. He finds the prohibitions di- rected against 'dishonest uses of the safe-conduct of the United States in foreign relations.' Such use must be 'willful and knowing,' an expression said to bear the connotation of evil or dishonest. Attention is called to alleged passport frauds of about the time of the passage of the passport sections and to the recommendation of the Attorney General that Congress pass legislation against the fraudulent use of passports.3 These are brought forward as indicative of the purpose of Congress to punish fraudulent uses or those uses abroad which would involve misuse of the privilege, under international law, of traveling through foreign countries.

It is quite true that passports are used chiefly in foreign travel. There is no limitation, however, to that field and surely the close connection between foreign travel and reentry to this country is obvious. The plain meaning of the words of the act covers this use. No single argument has more weight in statutory interpretation than this.4 Nothing in the legislative history is brought to our attention which indicates any other purpose in Congress than that expressed by the words of the act. The final form of the enactment did not vary in this particular portion from the bill originally introduced.5 The Government does not urge that every use of a fraudulent passport is violative of the act but only those 'uses in connection with travel which are a part of the ordinary incentives for obtaining passports.' Certainly the use to prove citizenship on reentry to the country is within the ordinary incentives. 6 It is en- tirely clear from the record that passports were customarily used to prove the bearer's citizenship on reentry into the United States at the time of this alleged offense. The use of a passport for reentry is now routine, although neither at the time of the passage of the act nor at present are passports required of citizens on reentry. Our conclusion is not weakened by the fact that the Act of May 22, 1918,7 which required citizens to use passports to depart from or enter the United States, was permitted to expire after the war emergency. While passports no longer were required for reentry, their use for that purpose afterwards became both convenient and customary.

The fact that at the time of the passage of the act, passports were not customarily used by citizens to assure easy reentry is brought forward by petitioner to support the argument that Congress did not intend to punish uses such as the one charged here. There is nothing in the legislative history to indicate that Congress considered the question of use by returning citizens. Old crimes, however, may be committed under new conditions. Old laws apply to changed situations.8 The reach of the act is not sustained or opposed by the fact that it is sought to bring new situations under its terms.9 While a statute speaks from its enactment, even a criminal statute embraces everything which subsequently falls within its scope.10 The use here charged under these tests was clearly within the scope of the act. The purpose of this act was to punish the use of passports obtained by false statements.

There is the further contention that the Government's construction of the word 'use' would make criminal, under other sections of the act, the presentation of expired passports for the purpose of identifying citizens returning from Mexico, Bermuda and Canada. Petitioner urges that such uses, though frequent and apparently acquiesced in by the authorities, would then violate section 3, 22 U.S.C.A. § 221, which prohibits a use 'in violation of the conditions or restrictions therein contained,' and also section 4, 22 U.S.C.A. § 222, which prohibits the use of a passport 'validly issued which has become void by the occurrence of any condition therein prescribed invalidating the same.' The question of the meaning of other sections is not before us. Considered solely from the standpoint of their analogy to section 2, the use of expired passports to identify the holder seems entirely different from the use...

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