Paul Weems v. United States

Decision Date02 May 1910
Docket NumberNo. 20,20
Citation54 L.Ed. 793,217 U.S. 349,19 Ann. Cas. 705,30 S.Ct. 544
PartiesPAUL A. WEEMS, Plff. in Err., v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 349-351 intentionally omitted] Mr. A. S. Worthington for plaintiff in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 351-354 intentionally omitted] Assistant Attorney General Fowler and Solicitor General Hoyt for defendant in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 354-357 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice McKenna delivered the opinion of the court:

This writ of error brings up for review the judgment of the supreme court of the Philippine Islands, affirming the conviction of plaintiff in error for falsifying a 'public and official document.'

In the 'complaint,' by which the prosecution was begun, it was charged that the plaintiff in error, 'a duly appointed, qualified, and acting disbursing officer of the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation of the United States Government of the Philippine Islands,' did, as such, 'corruptly, and with intent then and there to deceive and defraud the United States government of the Philippine Islands and its officials, falsify a public and official document, namely, a cash book of the captain of the port of Manilla, Philippine Islands, and the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation of the United States Government of the Philippine Islands,' kept by him as disbursing officer of that bureau. The falsification, which is alleged with much particularity, was committed by entering as paid out, 'as wages of employees of the lighthouse service of the United States government of the Philippine Islands,' at the Capul lighthouse, of 204 pesos, and for like service at the Matabriga lighthouse of 408 pesos, Philippine currency. A demurrer was filed to the 'complaint,' which was overruled.

He was convicted, and the following sentence was imposed upon him: 'To the penalty of fifteen years of cadena, together with the accessories of § 56 of the Penal Code, and to pay a fine of 4,000 pesetas, but not to serve imprisonment as a subsidiary punishment in case of his insolvency, on account of the nature of the main penalty, and to pay the costs of this cause.'

The judgment and sentence were affirmed by the supreme court of the islands.

It is conceded by plaintiff in error that some of the questions presented to the supreme court of the Philippine Islands cannot be raised in this court, as the record does not contain the evidence. Indeed, plaintiff in error confines his discussion to one point raised in the court below and to three other questions, which, though not brought to the attention of the supreme court of the islands, and not included in the assignment of errors, are of such importance, it is said, that this court will consider them under the right reserved in rule 35.

These questions are as follows:

'I. The court below erred in overruling the demurrer to the complaint, this assignment being based upon the fact that, in the complaint, the plaintiff in error is described as the 'disbursing officer of the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation of the United States Government of the Philippine Islands,' and the cash book referred to in the complaint is described as a book 'of the captain of the port of Manila, Philippine Islands,' whereas there is no such body politic as the 'United States government of the Philippine Island.'

'2. The record does not disclose that the plaintiff in error was arraigned, or that he pleaded to the complaint after his demurrer was overruled and he was 'ordered to plead to the complaint.'

'3. The record does not show that the plaintiff in error was present when he was tried, or, indeed, that he was present in court at any time.

'4. The punishment of fifteen years' imprisonment was a cruel and unusual punishment, and, to the extent of the sentence, the judgment below should be reversed on this ground.'

The second assignment of error was based upon a misapprehension of the fact, and has been abandoned.

The argument to support the first assignment of error is based upon certain acts of Congress and certain acts of the Philippine Commission in which the government of the United States and the government of the Islands are distinguished. And it is urged that in one of the acts (§ 3396 of the acts of the commission) it is recognized that there may be allegiance to or treason against both or 'either of them,' and (§ 3397) that there may be 'rebellion or insurrection against the authority' of either, and (§ 3398) that there may be a conspiracy to overthrow either, or to 'prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of either.' Other sections are cited, in which it is contended that the insular government is spoken of as an 'entity,' and distinguished from that of the United States. Section 1366, which defines the duty of the attorney general, it is pointed out, especially distinguishes between 'causes, civil or criminal, to which the United States or any officer thereof in his official capacity is a party,' and causes, civil or criminal, to which the 'government of the Philippine Islands or any officer thereof in his official capacity is a party.' And still more decisively, it is urged, by subdivision 'C' of § 1366, in which it is recognized that the cause of action may be for money, and that the judgment may be for money, 'belonging to the government of the United States and that of the Philippine Islands or some other province.' It is therefore contended that the government of the United States and that of the Philippine Islands are distinct legal entities, and that there may be civil obligations to one, and not to the other; that there may be governmental liability to the one, and not to the other; and that proceedings, civil or criminal, against either, must recognixe the distinction to be either, must recognize the distinction to be these principles, let us see what the information charges. It describes Weems, plaintiff in error, as 'a public official of the United States government of the Philippine Islands; to wit, a duly appointed and qualified acting disbursing official of the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation of the United States Government of the Philippine Islands;' and it is charged that, by taking advantage of his official position, with intent to 'deceive and defraud the United States government of the Phillipine Islands,' he falsified a public and official document. In the same manner the gov- ernment is designated throughout the information. It is contended that 'there is no such body politic as the 'United States government of the Philippine Islands," and it is urged that the objection does not relate to a matter of form. 'It is as substantial,' it is said, as the point involved in Carrington v. United States, 208 U. S. 1, 52 L. ed. 367, 28 Sup. Ct. Rep. 203, where a military officer of the United States was prosecuted as a civil officer of the government of the Philippines. His conviction was reversed, this court holding that, 'as a soldier, he was not an official of the Philippines, but of the United States.'

It is true that the distinctions raised are expressed in the statutes, and necessarily so. It would be difficult otherwise to provide for government where there is a paramount authority making use of subordinate instrumentalities. We have examples in the states of the Union and their lesser municipal divisions, and rights may flow from and to such lesser divisions. And the distinction in the Philippine statutes means no more than that, and, conforming to that, a distinction is clearly made in the information. Weems's official position is described as 'disbursing officer of the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation of the United States Government of the Philippine Islands.' There is no real uncertainty in this description, and whatever technical nicety of discrimination might have been insisted on at one time cannot now be, in view of the provisions of the Philippine Criminal Code of Procedure, which requires a public offense to be described in 'ordinary and concise language,' not necessarily in the words of the statute, 'but in such form as to enable a person of common understanding to know what is intended, and the court to pronounce indgment according to the right.' And it is further provided that 'no information or complaint is insufficient, nor can the trial, judgment, or other proceeding be affected, by reason of a defect in matter of form which does not tend to prejudice a substantial right of the defendant upon the merits' (§ 10).

Carrington v. United States, 208 U. S. 1, 52 L. ed. 367, 28 Sup. Ct. Rep. 203, is not in point. In that case it was attempted to hold Carrington guilty of an offense as a civil officer for what he had done as a military officer. As he was the latter, he had not committed any offense under the statute. The first assignment of error is therefore not sustained.

It is admitted, as we have seen, that the questions presented by the third and fourth assignments of error were not made in the courts below, but a consideration of them is invoked under rule 35, which provides that this court, 'at its option, may notice a plain error not assigned.'

It is objected on the other side that Paraiso v. United States, 207 U. S. 368, 52 L. ed. 249, 28 Sup. Ct. Rep. 127, stands in the way. But the rule is not altogether controlled by precedent. It confers a discretion that may be exercised at any time, no matter what may have been done at some other time. It is true we declined to exercise it in Paraiso v. United States, but we exercised it in Wiborg v. United States, 163 U. S. 632, 658, 41 L. ed. 289, 298, 16 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1127, 1197; Clyatt v. United States, 197 U. S. 207, 221, 49 L. ed. 726, 731, 25 Sup. Ct. Rep. 429, and Crawford v. United States, 212 U. S. 183, 53 L. ed. 465, 29 Sup. Ct. Rep. 260, 15 A. & E. Ann. Cas. 392. It may be said, however, that Paraiso v. United States is more directly applicable, as it...

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