Haynes v. United States

Decision Date29 January 1968
Docket NumberNo. 236,236
Citation390 U.S. 85,19 L.Ed.2d 923,88 S.Ct. 722
PartiesMiles Edward HAYNES, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Charles Alan Wright, Austin, Tex., for petitioner; Ernest E. Figari, Jr., Dallas, Tex., on the brief.

Harris Weinstein, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was charged by a three-count information filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas with violations of the National Firearms Act. 48 Stat. 1236. Two of the counts were subsequently dismissed upon motion of the United States Attorney. The remaining count averred that petitioner, in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 5851, knowingly possessed a firearm, as defined by 26 U.S.C. § 5848(1), which had not been registered with the Secretary of the Treasury or his delegate, as required by 26 U.S.C. § 5841. Petitioner moved before trial to dismiss this count, evidently asserting that § 5851 violated his privilege against self-incrimination, as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.1 The motion was denied, and petitioner thereupon entered a plea of guilty.2 The judgment of conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. 372 F.2d 651. We granted certiorari to examine the constitutionality under the Fifth Amendment of petitioner's conviction. 388 U.S. 908, 87 S.Ct. 2130, 18 L.Ed.2d 1347. For reasons which follow, we reverse.


Section 58513 forms part of the National Firearms Act, an interrelated statutory system for the taxation of certain classes of firearms. The Act's requirements are applicable only to shotguns with barrels less than 18 inches long; rifles with barrels less than 16 inches long; other weapons, made from a rifle or shotgun, with an overall length of less than 26 inches; machine guns and other automatic firearms; mufflers and silencers; and other firearms, except pistols and revolvers, 'if such weapon is capable of being concealed on the person * * *.' 26 U.S.C. § 5848(1); Treas.Reg. § 179.20, 26 CFR § 179.20. These limitations were apparently intended to guarantee that only weapons used principally by persons engaged in unlawful activities would be subjected to taxation.4

Importers manufacturers, and dealers in such firearms are obliged each year to pay special occupational taxes, and to register with the Secretary of the Treasury or his delegate. 26 U.S.C. §§ 5801, 5802. Separate taxes are imposed on the making and transfer of such firearms by persons other than those obliged to pay the occupational taxes. 26 U.S.C. §§ 5811, 5821. For purposes of these additional taxes, the acts of making and transferring firearms are broadly defined. Section 5821 thus imposes a tax on the making of a firearm 'whether by manufacture, putting together, alteration, any combination thereof, or otherwise.' Similarly, to transfer encompasses 'to sell, assign, pledge, lease, loan, give away, or otherwise dispose of' a firearm. 26 U.S.C. § 5848(10).

All these taxes are supplemented by comprehensive requirements calculated to assure their collection. Any individual who wishes to make a weapon, within the meaning of § 5821(a), is obliged, 'prior to such making,' to declare his intention to the Secretary, and to provide to the Treasury his fingerprints and photograph. 26 U.S.C. § 5821(e); Treas.Reg. § 179.78. The declaration must be 'supported by a certificate of the local chief of police * * * or such other person whose certificate may * * * be acceptable * * *.' Treas.Reg. § 179.78. The certificate must indicate satisfaction that the fingerprints and photograph are those of the declarant, and that the firearm is intended 'for lawful purposes.' Ibid. Any person who wishes to transfer such a weapon may lawfully do so only if he first obtains a written order from the prospective transferee on an 'application form issued * * * for that purpose by the Secretary.' 26 U.S.C. § 5814(a). The application, supported by a certificate of the local chief of police, and accompanied by the transferee's fingerprints and photograph, must be approved by the Secretary prior to the transfer. Treas.Reg. §§ 179.98, 179.99. Finally, every person possessing such a firearm is obliged to register his possession with the Secretary, unless he made the weapon, or acquired it by transfer or importation, and the Act's requirements as to transfers, makings, and importations 'were complied with.' 26 U.S.C. § 5841.5

Failure to comply with any of the Act's requirements is made punishable by fines and imprisonment. 26 U.S.C. § 5861. In addition, § 5851 creates a series of supplementary offenses; it declares unlawful the possession of any firearm which has 'at any time' been transferred or made in violation of the Act's provisions, or which 'has not been registered as required by section 5841.' Finally, § 5851 provides that in prosecutions conducted under that section 'possession shall be deemed sufficient evidence to authorize conviction, unless the defendant explains such possession to the satisfaction of the jury.'


At the outset, it must be emphasized that the issue in this case is not whether Congress has authority under the Constitution to regulate the manufacture, transfer, or possession of firearms; nor is it whether Congress may tax activities which are, wholly or in part, unlawful. Rather, we are required to resolve only the narrow issue of whether enforcement of § 5851 against petitioner, despite his assertion of the privilege against self-incrimination, is constitutionally permissible. The questions necessary for decision art two: first, whether petitioner's conviction under § 5851 is meaningfully distinguishable from a conviction under § 5841 for failure to register possession of a firearm; and second, if it is not, whether satisfaction of petitioner's obligation to register under § 5841 would have compelled him to provide information incriminating to himself. If, as petitioner urges, his conviction under § 5851 is essentially indistinguishable from a conviction premised directly upon a failure to register under § 5841, and if a prosecution under § 5841 would have punished petitioner for his failure to incriminate himself, it would follow that a proper claim of privilege should have provided a full defense to this prosecution.6 To these questions we turn.


The first issue is whether the elements of the offense under § 5851 of possession of a firearm 'which has not been registered as required by section 5841' differ in any significant respect from those of the offense under § 5841 of failure to register possession of a firearm. The United States contends that the two offenses, despite the sim- ilarity of their statutory descriptions, serve entirely different purposes, in that the registration clause of § 5851 is intended to punish acceptance of the possession of a firearm which, despite the requirements of § 5841, was never registered by any prior possessor, while § 5841 punishes only a present possessor who has failed to register the fact of his own possession. If this construction is correct, nothing in a prosecution under § 5851 would turn on whether the present possessor had elected to register; his offense would have been complete when he accepted possession of a firearm which no previous possessor had registered. We need not determine whether this construction would be free from constitutional difficulty under the Fifth Amendment, for we have concluded that § 5851 cannot properly be construed as the United States has urged.7

The United States finds support for its construction of § 5851 chiefly in the section's use of the past tense: the act stated to be unlawful is 'to possess any firearm which has not been registered as required by section 5841.' (Emphasis added.) It is contended that we may infer from this choice of tense that the failure to register must necessarily precede the accused's acquisition of possession. We cannot derive so much from so little. We perceive no more in the draftsman's choice of tense than the obvious fact that the failure to register must precede the moment at which the accused is charged; we find nothing which confines the clause's application to failures to register which have occurred before a present possessor received the firearm. It follows that the phrase fastened upon by the United States is, at the least, equally consistent with the construction advanced by petitioner.

If, however, nothing further were available, it might be incumbent upon us to accept the Government's construction in order to avoid the adjudication of a serious constitutional issue. See, e.g., Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 297 U.S. 288, 348, 56 S.Ct. 466, 483, 80 L.Ed. 688 (concurring opinion); Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22, 62, 52 S.Ct. 285, 296, 76 L.Ed. 598. But there are persuasive indications at hand which, in our view, preclude adoption of the position urged by the United States. Initially, we must note that each of the other two offenses defined by § 5851 indicates very specifically that the violations of the making or transfer provisions, on which the § 5851 offenses are ultimately premised, can have occurred 'at any time.' An analogous phrase in the registration clause would have made plain beyond all question that the construction now urged by the United States should be accepted; if this was indeed Congress' purpose, it is difficult to see why it did not, as it did in the other clauses, insert the few additional words necessary to make clear its wishes. The position suggested by the United States would thus oblige us, at the outset, to assume that Congress has, in this one clause, chosen a remarkably oblique and unrevealing phrasing.

Similarly, it is pertinent to note that the transfer and making clauses of § 5851 punish the receipt, as well as the possession, of firearms; the registration clause, in contrast, punishes only possession. Under the construction given § 5851 by the United...

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