Holland v. United States

Citation348 U.S. 121,99 L.Ed. 150,75 S.Ct. 127
Decision Date06 December 1954
Docket NumberNo. 37,37
PartiesMarion L. HOLLAND and Ethel E. Holland, Petitioners, v. UNITED STATES of America
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Messrs.Sumner M. Redstone, Peyton Ford, Washington, D.C., for petitioners.

Mr. Marvin E. Frankel, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners, husband and wife, stand convicted under § 145 of the Internal Revenue Code1 of an attempt to evade and defeat their income taxes for the year 1948. The prosecution was based on the net worth method of proof, also in issue in three companion cases2 and a number of other decisions here from the Courts of Appeals of nine circuits. During the past two decades this Court has been asked to review an increasing number of criminal cases in which proof of tax evasion rested on this theory. We have denied certiorari because the cases involved only questions of evidence and, in isolation, presented no important questions of law. In 1943 the Court did have occasion to pass upon an application of the net worth theory where the taxpayer had no records. United States v. Johnson, 319 U.S. 503, 63 S.Ct. 1233, 87 L.Ed. 1546.

In recent years, however, tax-evasion convictions obtained under the net worth theory have come here with increasing frequency and left impressions beyond those of the previously unrelated petitions. We concluded that the method involved something more than the ordinary use of circumstantial evidence in the usual criminal case. Its bearing, therefore, on the safeguards traditionally provided in the administration of criminal justice called for a consideration of the entire theory. At our last Term a number of cases arising from the Courts of Appeals brought to our attention the serious doubts of those courts regarding the implications of the net worth method. Accordingly, we granted certiorari in these four cases and have held others to await their decision.

In a typical net worth prosecution, the Government, having concluded that the taxpayer's records are inadequate as a basis for determining income tax liability, attempts to establish an 'opening net worth' or total net value of the taxpayer's assets at the beginning of a given year. It then proves increases in the taxpayer's net worth for each succeeding year during the period under examination and calculates the difference between the adjusted net values of the taxpayer's assets at the beginning and end of each of the years involved. The taxpayer's nondeductible expenditures, including living expenses, are added to these increases, and if the resulting figure for any year is substantially greater than the taxable income reported by the taxpayer for that year, the Government claims the excess represents unreported taxable income. In addition, it asks the jury to infer willfulness from this understatement, when taken in connection with direct evidence of 'conduct, the likely effect of which would be to mislead or to conceal.' Spies v. United States, 317 U.S. 492, 499, 63 S.Ct. 364, 368, 87 L.Ed. 418.

Before proceeding with a discussion of these cases, we believe it important to outline the general problems implicit in this type of litigation. In this consideration we assume, as we must in view of its widespread use, that the Government deems the net worth method useful in the enforcement of the criminal sanctions of our income tax laws. Nevertheless, careful study indicates that it is so fraught with danger for the innocent that the courts must closely scrutinize its use.

One basic assumption in establishing guilt by this method is that most assets derive from a taxable source, and that when this is not true the taxpayer is in a position to explain the discrepancy. The application of such an assumption raises serious legal problems in the administration of the criminal law. Unlike civil actions for the recovery of deficiencies, where the determinations of the Commissioner have prima facie validity, the prosecution must always prove the criminal charge beyond a reasonable doubt. This has led many of our courts to be disturbed by the use of the net worth method, particularly in its scope and the latitude which it allows prosecutors. E.g., Demetree v. United States, 5 Cir., 1953, 207 F.2d 892, 894; United States v. Caserta, 3 Cir., 1952, 199 F.2d 905, 907; United States v. Fenwick, 7 Cir., 177 F.2d 488.

But the net worth method has not grown up overnight. It was first utilized in such cases as Capone v. United States, 7 Cir., 1931, 51 F.2d 609 and Guzik v. United States, 7 Cir., 1931, 54 F.2d 618, to corroborate direct proof of specific unreported income. In United States v. Johnson, supra, this Court approved of its use to support the inference that the taxpayer, owner of a vast and elaborately concealed network of gambling houses upon which he declared no income, had indeed received unreported income in a 'substantial amount.' It was a potent weapon in establishing taxable income from undisclosed sources when all other efforts failed. Since the Johnson case, however, its horizons have been widened until now it is used in run-of-the-mine cases, regardless of the amount of tax deficiency involved. In each of the four cases decided today the allegedly unreported income comes from the same disclosed sources as produced the taxpayer's reported income and in none is the tax deficiency anything like the deficiencies in Johnson, Capone or Guzik. The net worth method, it seems, has evolved from the final volley to the first shot in the Government's battle for revenue, and its use in the ordinary income-bracket cases greatly increases the chances for error. This leads us to point out the dangers that must be consciously kept in mind in order to assure adequate appraisal of the specific facts in individual cases.

1. Among the defenses often asserted is the taxpayer's claim that the net worth increase shown by the Government's statement is in reality not an increase at all because of the existence of substantial cash on hand at the starting point. This favorite defense asserts that the cache is made up of many years' savings which for various reasons were hidden and not expended until the prosecution period. Obviously, the Government has great difficulty in refuting such a contention. However, taxpayers too encounter many obstacles in convincing the jury of the existence of such hoards. This is particularly so when the emergence of the hidden savings also uncovers a fraud on the taxpayer's creditors.

In this connection, the taxpayer frequently gives 'leads' to the Government agents indicating the specific sources from which his cash on hand has come, such as prior earnings, stock transactions, real estate profits, inheritances, gifts, etc. Sometimes these 'leads' point back to old transactions far removed from the prosecution period. Were the Government required to run down all such leads it would face grave investigative difficulties; still its failure to do so might jeopardize the position of the taxpayer.

2. As we have said, the method requires assumptions, among which is the equation of unexplained increases in net worth with unreported taxable income. Obviously such an assumption has many weaknesses. It may be that gifts, inheritances, loans and the like account for the newly acquired wealth. There is great danger that the jury may assume that once the Government has established the figures in its net worth computations the crime of tax evasion automatically follows. The possibility of this increases where the jury, without guarding instructions, is allowed to take into the jury room the various charts summarizing the computations; bare figures have a way of acquiring an existence of their own, independent of the evidence which gave rise to them.

3. Although it may sound fair to say that the taxpayer can explain the 'bulge' in his net worth, he may be entirely honest and yet unable to recount his financial history. In addition, such a rule would tend to shift the burden of proof. Were the taxpayer compelled to come forward with evidence, he might risk lending support to the Government's case by showing loose business methods or losing the jury through his apparent evasiveness. Of course, in other criminal prosecutions juries may disbelieve and convict the innocent. But the courts must minimize this danger.

4. When there are no books and records, willfulness may be inferred by the jury from that fact coupled with proof of an understatement of income. But when the Government uses the net worth method, and the books and records of the taxpayer appear correct on their face, an inference of willfulness from net worth increases alone might be unjustified, especially where the circumstances surrounding the deficiency are as consistent with innocent mistake as with willful violation. On the other hand, the very failure of the books to disclose a proved deficiency might indicate deliberate falsification.

5. In many cases of this type, the prosecution relies on the taxpayer's statements, made to revenue agents in the course of their investigation, to establish vital links in the Government's proof. But when a revenue agent confronts the taxpayer with an apparent deficiency, the latter may be more concerned with a quick settlement than an honest search for the truth. Moreover, the prosecution may pick and choose from the taxpayer's statement relying on the favorable portion and throwing aside that which does not bolster its position. The problem of corroboration, dealt with in the companion cases of Smith v. United States, 348 U.S. 147, 75 S.Ct. 194, and United States v. Calderon, 348 U.S. 160, 75 S.Ct. 186, therefore becomes crucial.

6. The statute defines the offense here involved by individual years. While the Government may be able to prove with reasonable...

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