Ladner v. United States

Decision Date15 December 1958
Docket NumberNo. 2,2
Citation79 S.Ct. 209,3 L.Ed.2d 199,358 U.S. 169
PartiesLovander LADNER, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES of America
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Harold Rosenwald, Boston, Mass., for the petitioner.

Mr. Leonard B. Sand, Washington, D.C., for the respondent.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioner was convicted in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi of assaulting two federal officers with a deadly weapon in violation of former 18 U.S.C. § 254.1 The court sentenced the petitioner to the maximum punishment of 10 years' imprisonment on each conviction of assault the sentences to run consecutively.2 Upon completion of the first 10-year sentence, the petitioner made a motion in the District Court, under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2255, to correct the second, and consecutive, sentence. He supported his motion by allegations that the evidence at his trial showed that he fired a single discharge from a shotgun into the front seat of an automobile and that the pellets wounded the two federal officers, who were transporting an arrested prisoner. He contended that in this circumstance he was guilty of but one 'assault' within the meaning of former § 254 and accordingly was subject to only one punishment. The District Court denied his motion and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 230 F.2d 726. Both courts held that the wounding of two federal officers by the single discharge of a shotgun would constitute a separate offense against each officer under the statute. We granted certiorari, 352 U.S. 907, 77 S.Ct. 151, 1 L.Ed.2d 116, to consider the construction of § 254 in light of principles applied to construe the federal criminal statutes involved in Bell v. United States, 349 U.S. 81, 75 S.Ct. 620, 99 L.Ed. 905; United States v. Universal C.I.T. Credit Corp., 344 U.S. 218, 73 S.Ct. 227, 97 L.Ed. 260, and Prince v. United States, 352 U.S. 322, 77 S.Ct. 403, 1 L.Ed.2d 370. We affirmed the Court of Appeals by an equally divided Court, 355 U.S. 282, 78 S.Ct. 336, 2 L.Ed.2d 270, but vacated our judgment, and set the case for reargument, when a petition for rehearing was granted. 356 U.S. 969, 78 S.Ct. 1004, 2 L.Ed.2d 1075. Reargument was had this Term.

It is suggested that the remedy under § 2255 is not available to the petitioner in the circumstances of this case. The record does not disclose that the Government raised this question in the District Court or in the Court of Appeals, and the Government does not tender it as a Question Presented for Decision in its brief in this Court. This court has often reached the merits of a case involving questions of statutory construction similar to that presented in this case under former 18 U.S.C. § 254 in proceedings by way of collateral attack upon consecutive sentences. In In re Snow, 120 U.S. 274, 7 S.Ct. 556, 30 L.Ed. 658, the petitioner brought a habeas corpus proceeding after serving seven months of three consecutive six-month sentences. He claimed that the sentencing court had misinterpreted the applicable statute and that he had committed but a single offense punishable by a single six-month sentence. This Court held that 'the objection may be taken on habeas corpus when the sentence on more than one of the convictions is sought to be enforced.' Id., 120 U.S. at page 285, 7 S.Ct. at page 561. In Bell v. United States, supra, a case on all fours with the present case, the Court reached the question of statutory construction over objection in the Government's brief in opposition to the petition for certiorari that the question could not be raised on motion under § 2255. Other cases in which the Court reached and decided questions of statutory construction, although the questions were raised by collateral attack on consecutive sentences, include: Tinder v. United States, 345 U.S. 565, 73 S.Ct. 911, 97 L.Ed. 1250 (§ 2255); Gore v. United States, 357 U.S. 386, 78 S.Ct. 1280, 2 L.Ed.2d 1405 (§ 2255); Prince v. United States, supra (Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35, 18 U.S.C.A.); Ebeling v. Morgan, 237 U.S. 625, 35 S.Ct. 710, 59 L.Ed. 1151 (habeas corpus); Morgan v. Devine, 237 U.S. 632, 35 S.Ct. 712, 59 L.Ed. 1153 (habeas corpus). The fact that the Court has so often reached the merits of the statutory construction issues in such proceedings suggests that the availability of a collateral remedy is not a jurisdictional question in the sense that, if not properly raised, this Court should nevertheless determine it sua sponte. Moreover, there was only meagre argument of the question of the availability of the remedy in this case. The Government submitted only a short discussion of the question in the body of its brief and made only a passing reference to it toward the close of the oral argument. The question of the scope of collateral attack upon criminal sentences is an important and complex one, judging from the number of decisions discussing it in the District Courts and the Courts of Appeals. We think that we should have the benefit of a full argument before dealing with the question. We, therefore, proceed to construe former 18 U.S.C. § 254 without, however, intimating any view as to the availability of a collateral remedy in another case where that question is properly raised, and is adequately briefed and argued in this Court.

There is no constitutional issue presented. The question for decision is as to the construction to be given former § 254 in the circumstances alleged by the petitioner. Did Congress mean that the single discharge of a shotgun would constitute one assault, and thus only one offense, regardless of the number of officers affected, or did Congress define a separate offense for each federal officer affected by the doing of the act? The congressional meaning is plainly open to question on the face of the statute, which originated as § 2 of the Act of May 18, 1934. 48 Stat. 780. The Government does not seriously contend otherwise, but emphasizes that the legislative history shows that the statute was designed to protect federal officers from personal harm, or the threat of personal harm, in the performance of their duties, or on account of the performance of their duties. From this premise, the Government argues that there must be an offense for each officer who is put in immediate apprehension of personal injury, i.e., assaulted, and that each officer thus defines the unit of prosecution. The position is summed up in the Government's brief as follows: 'The legislation was aimed at protecting federal officers, not only to promote the orderly functioning of the federal government (whose efficiency would diminish in proportion to the number of individual officers affected), but also to protect the individual officers, as 'wards' of the federal government, from personal harm. Both of these legislative objectives make the individual officers a separate unit of protection.'

However, we are unable to read the legislative history as clearly illumining the statute with this meaning. The history is scant, consisting largely of an Attorney General's letter recommending the passage of the legislation,3 and sheds no real light on what Congress intended to be the unit of prosecution. Although the letter mentions the need for legislation for the protection of federal officers, it also speaks of the need for legislation 'to further the legitimate purposes of the Federal government.' From what appears, an argument at least as plausible as the Government's may be made that the congressional aim was to prevent hindrance to the execution of official duty, and thus to assure the carrying out of federal purposes and interests, and was not to protect federal officers except as incident to that aim. Support for this meaning may be found in the fact that § 254 makes it unlawful not only to assault federal officers engaged on official duty but also forcibly to resist, oppose, impede, intimidate or interfere with such officers. Clearly one may resist, oppose, or impede the officers or interfere with the performance of their duties without placing them in personal danger. Such a congressional aim would, of course, be served by considering the act of hindrance as the unit of prosecution without regard to the number of federal officers affected by the act. For example, the locking of the door of a building to prevent the entry of officers intending to arrest a person within would be an act of hindrance denounced by the statute. We cannot find clearly from the statute, even when read in the light of its legislative history, that the Congress intended that the person locking the door might commit as many crimes as there are officers denied entry. And if we cannot find this meaning in the supposed case, we cannot find that Congress intended that a single act of assault affecting two officers constitutes two offenses under the statute. The Government frankly conceded on the oral argument that assault can be treated no differently from the other outlawed activities,4 and that if a single act of hindrance which has an impact on two officers is only one offense when the act is not an assault, an act of assault can be only one offense even though it has an impact on two officers.

Moreover, an interpretation that there are as many assaults committed as there are officers affected would produce incongruous results. Punishments totally disproportionate to the act of assault could be imposed because it will often be the case that the number of officers affected will have little bearing upon the seriousness of the criminal act. For an assault is ordinarily held to be committed merely by putting another in apprehension of harm whether or not the actor actually intends to inflict or is capable of inflicting that harm.5 Thus under the meaning for which the Government contends, one who shoots and seriously wounds an officer would commit one offense punishable by 10 years' imprisonment, but if...

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