Opper v. United States

Decision Date06 December 1954
Docket NumberNo. 49,49
Citation99 L.Ed. 101,45 A.L.R.2d 1308,75 S.Ct. 158,348 U.S. 84
PartiesWilliam J. OPPER, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES of America
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr.Frederick Bernays Wiener, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr.John F. Davis, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner seeks review of a conviction under charges that he violated 18 U.S.C. § 281, 18 U.S.C.A. § 281, a section which punishes employees of the United States who receive outside compensation for any services to be rendered in any matter before a federal department or agency in which the United States is a party. Petitioner was not himself an employee but was charged with inducing a federal employee to accept compensation for such services through conspiring with him for that purpose. Such inducement violates 18 U.S.C. §§ 2 an 281, 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 2, 281. The sections are set out in the margin.1

Count 1 of the indictment charged, in substance, that on or about October 1, 1950, Hollifield, an employee of the United States, agreed to receive $1,750 from the petitioner for services to be rendered by Hollifield in regard to purchase requests in which the United States had a direct interest. The services consisted of Hollifield's recommending approval and procurement by the Department of the Air Force of certain types of sun goggles and ski goggles which were to be used in Air Force survival kits. Count 4 charged receipt by Hollifield of $200 on or about August 5, 1951. Each of these two counts charged that petitioner aided, abetted, induced and procured Hollifield to unlawfully receive the compensation.

The fifth count charged a conspiracy between Hollifield and the petitioner from October 1, 1950, until September 26, 1951, to perform the unlawful acts alleged. Convictions on other counts were reversed.

Hollifield and the petitioner were tried jointly after the petitioner's motion for severance was denied. The jury found petitioner guilty on all counts and sentence was duly imposed. On appeal the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the conviction as to the above counts now before us. 211 F.2d 719.

Certiorari was granted, 347 U.S. 1010, 74 S.Ct. 867, because of asserted variance or conflict between the legal conclusion reached in this case—that an extrajudicial, exculpatory statement of an accused, subsequent to the alleged crime, needs no corroboration—and other cases to the contrary.2 This Court, in granting certiorari, limited review to the three issues raised by the petitioner which were considered important to the administration of criminal law and upon which there appeared to be some divergence of opinion among the Courts of Appeals.3

Hollifield was employed by the United States Air Force at the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright Field Dayton, Ohio. His job entailed, among other things, preparing the specifications of survival kits and determining whether goods submitted for those kits, including goggles, complied with the specifications. Petitioner resided in Chicago and was a subcontractor on various projects for equipping these kits. The petitioner supplied certain goggles to a prime contractor who submitted them for approval for use in the kits. The goggles were rejected on January 23, 1951, because of 'marked deviations' from applicable specifications. A short time thereafter Hollifield arranged a conference with the project engineer who had made the rejection. At the conference Hollifield, accompanied by the petitioner, strongly urged acceptance of petitioner's goggles. It was concluded that Hollifield should prepare a written memorandum of his reasons for acceptance. A written memorandum dated January 25, 1951, was prepared.4 Thereafter reconsideration was granted and on February 3, 1951, use of petitioner's goggles was recommended.

The Government further established by various records that on April 13, 1951, a long-distance call was made from Hollifield's residence in Dayton to petitioner in Chicago; that petitioner on April 16, 1951, cashed a check for $1,000, which check was dated April 13, 1951; and that a round-trip airline ticket was issued in Hollifield's name for April 14, 1951, flights from Dayton to Chicago and return.

The evidence of the Government thus far summarized was established by independent proof. The remainder of the Government's case depended upon a written statement submitted by the petitioner to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and various oral statements made by the petitioner to the FBI in several interviews.

The substance of these statements was that the petitioner had first met Hollifield in October 1950, and had seen him some fifteen times thereafter at Wright Field and in Chicago and that he had discussed the rejection of the goggles with Hollifield. He further stated that Hollifield, pursuant to an earlier phone call, came to his office in Chicago on Saturday, April 14, 1951, and he had handed Hollifield $1,000 which he had taken from cash he had at home and which cash he had replenished on Monday, April 16, 1951, by cashing a check dated April 13, 1951, in that amount. Petitioner also admitted giving Hollifield another $200 some two weeks later.

In both his oral and written statements petitioner insisted that he had never requested anything of Hollifield in regard to the goggles; that the money was strictly a loan to Hollifield based upon Hollifield's request to him that he needed money in regard to a mortgage on his home; that no security was given for the loan; that he had no receipt or agreement for interest; that he had no personal knowledge as to whether Hollifield owned a home or not; and that none of the money had been repaid. Petitioner consistently and specifically denied any guilt of the offense charged.

The petitioner makes no claim that any of the extrajudicial statements were anything but voluntary. In fact the record discloses that petitioner was cooperative with the FBI in furnishing information and that petitioner had ample opportunity to consult counsel in reference to the FBI interviews and statements he made. Petitioner's prime contention is that his statements made after the date of the offense charged are so analogous to a confession that the same rules applicable to confessions must be applied and that if such rules are applied the conviction cannot stand.

First. It is petitioner's contention that where extrajudicial admissions that point to guilt are made by the accused, after the date of the acts charged as crime, testimony by witnesses other than the accused as to such oral or written admissions cannot be accepted as evidence without corroboration of the facts stated. That conclusion derives from petitioner's position that admissions of essential facts to prove a crime or admissions of some of its elements are so analogous to confessions of guilt that the same rule as to corroboration should be applied.

In the United States our concept of justice that finds no man guilty until proven has led our state and federal courts generally to refuse conviction on testimony concerning confessions of the accused not made by him at the trial of his case. Wigmore, Evidence (3d ed.), § 2071. See Warszower v. United States, 312 U.S. 342, 345, note 2, 61 S.Ct. 603. We have gone further in that direction than has the common law of England. There the courts have been hesitant to lay down a rule that an uncorroborated extrajudicial confession may not send an accused to prison or to death.5 In our country the doubt persists that the zeal of the agencies of prosecution to protect the peace, the self-interest of the accomplice, the maliciousness of an enemy or the aberration or weakness of the accused under the strain of suspicion may tinge or warp the facts of the confession. Admissions, retold at a trial, are much like hearsay, that is, statements not made at the pending trial. They had neither the compulsion of the oath nor the test of cross-examination.6 They are competent as an admission against interest.

The admissions detailed above establish an acquaintance between petitioner and the employee, and a motive but not a purpose to have the federal employee agree to receive prohibited compensation for the services. More importantly they establish the receipt of money by the employee around the time of the alleged inducement by conspiracy to secure the employee's services before a federal agency concerning a contract in which the United States was interested. While the oral and verbal statements were not confessions of guilt, they were admissions of fact essential to prove the charge against petitioner and indeed of an element of the crime, inducement to receive the prohibited compensation or an illegal acceptance of promise to pay.

In Warszower v. United States, 312 U.S. 342, 348, 61 S.Ct. 603, 606, 607, we held that although the only proof of an essential element of making a false statement was admissions to the contrary prior to the crime charged, sufficient to convict if found true, such an admission would take the case to the jury. We said such admissions 'contain none of the inherent weaknesses of confessions or admissions after the fact.' We think that an accused's admissions of essential facts or elements of the crime, subsequent to the crime, are of the same character as confessions and that corroboration should be required. See 1 Greenleaf, Evi- dence (16th ed.), § 216; Smith v. United States, 348 U.S. 147, 75 S.Ct. 194.

The need for corroboration extends beyond complete and conscious admission of guilt—a strict confession.7 Facts admitted that are immaterial as to guilt or innocence need no discussion. But statements of the accused out of court that show essential elements of the crime, here payment of money, necessary to supplement an otherwise inadequate basis for a verdict of conviction, stand differently. Such admissions have the same possibilities for error as confessions. They, too, must be...

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