Quercia v. United States

Decision Date29 May 1933
Docket NumberNo. 701,701
Citation53 S.Ct. 698,77 L.Ed. 1321,289 U.S. 466
PartiesQUERCIA v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Essex S. Abbott, of Boston, Mass., for petitioner.

The Attorney General and Mr. Thomas D. Thacher, Sol. Gen., of Washington, D.C., for the United States.

[Argument of Counsel from page 467 intentionally omitted] Mr. Chief Justice HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was convicted of violating the Narcotic Act. 26 U.S.C., § 692, 705 (26 USCA §§ 692, 705). The conviction was affirmed by the Circuit Court of Appeals (62 F.(2d) 746), and this court granted certiorari. 289 U.S. 715, 53 S.Ct. 525, 77 L.Ed. —-.

Reversal is sought upon the ground that the instructions of the trial court to the jury exceeded the bounds of fair comment and constituted prejudicial error. After testimony by agents of the government in support of the indictment, defendant testified, making a general denial of all charges. His testimony is not set forth in the record. Defendant's motion for a direction of verdict and requests for rulings substantially to the same effect were denied. The court instructed the jury concerning the rules as to presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt, and stated generally that its expression of opinion on the evidence was not binding on the jury and that it was their duty to disregard the court's opinion as to the facts if the jury did not agree with it. The court ruled as matter of law that if the jury believed the evidence for the government, it might find the defendant guilty. The court then charged the jury as follows:

'And now I am going to tell you what I think of the defendant's testimony. You may have noticed, Mr. Foreman and gentlemen, that he wiped his hands during his testimony. It is rather a curious thing, but that is almost always an indication of lying. Why it should be so we don't know, but that is the fact. I think that every single word that man said, except when he agreed with the Government's testimony, was a lie.

'Now, that opinion is an opinion of evidence and is not binding on you, and if you don't agree with it, it is your duty to find him not guilty.'

To this charge the defendant excepted.

In a trial by jury in a federal court, the judge is not a mere moderator, but is the governor of the rial for the purpose of assuring its proper conduct and of determining questions of law. Herron v. Southern Pacific Co., 283 U.S. 91, 95, 51 S.Ct. 383, 75 L.Ed. 857. In charging the jury, the trial judge is not limited to instructions of an abstract sort. It is within his province, whenever he thinks it necessary, to assist the jury in arriving at a just conclusion by explaining and commenting upon the evidence, by drawing their attention to the parts of it which he thinks important, and he may express his opinion upon the facts, provided he makes it clear to the jury that all matters of fact are submitted to their determination. Carver v. Jackson, 4 Pet. 1, 80, 7 L.Ed. 761; Vicksburg & Meridian R.R. Co. v. Putnam, 118 U.S. 545, 553, 7 S.Ct. 1, 30 L.Ed. 257; United States v. Philadelphia & Reading R.R. Co., 123 U.S. 113, 114, 8 S.Ct. 77, 31 L.Ed. 138; Capital Traction Co. v. Hof, 174 U.S. 1, 13, 14, 19 S.Ct. 580, 43 L.Ed. 873; Patton v. United States, 281 U.S. 276, 288, 50 S.Ct. 253, 74 L.Ed. 854, 70 A.L.R. 263. Sir Matthew Hale thus described the function of the trial judge at common law: 'Herein he is able, in matters of law emerging upon the evidence, to direct them; and also, in matters of fact to give them a great light and assistance by his weighing the evidence before them, and observing where the question and knot of the business lies, and by showing them his opinion even in matter of fact; which is a great advantage and light to laymen.' Hale, History of the Common Law, 291, 292. Under the Federal Constitution the essential prerogatives of the trial judge as they were secured by the rules of the common law are maintained in the federal courts. Vicksburg & Meridian R.R. Co. v. Putnam, supra; St. Louis, I.M. & S. Rwy. Co. v. Vickers, 122 U.S. 360, 363, 7 S.Ct. 1216, 30 L.Ed. 1161; Slocum v. New York Life Insurance Co., 228 U.S. 364, 397, 33 S.Ct. 523; 57 L.Ed. 879, Ann. Cas. 1914D, 1029; Herron v. Southern Pacific Co., supra; Gasoline Products Co. v. Champlin Co., 283 U.S. 494, 498, 51 S.Ct. 513, 75 L.Ed.1188.

This privilege of the judge to comment on the facts has its inherent limitations. His discretion is not arbitrary and uncontrolled, but judicial, to be exercised in conformity with the standards governing the judicial office. In commenting upon testimony he may not assume the role of a witness. He may analyze and dissect the evidence, but he may not either distort it or add to it. His privilege of comment in order to give appropriate assistance to the jury is too important to be left without safeguards against abuses. The influence of the trial judge on the jury 'is necessarily and properly of great weight' and 'his lightest word or intimation is received with deference, and may prove controlling.' This court has accordingly emphasized the duty of the trial judge to use great care that an expression of opinion upon the evidence 'should be so given as not to mislead, and especially that it should not be one-sided'; that 'deductions and theories not warranted by the evidence should be studiously avoided.' Starr v. United States, 153 U.S. 614, 626, 14 S.Ct. 919, 923, 38 L.Ed. 841; Hickory v. United States, 160 U.S. 408, 421 423, 16 S.Ct. 327, 332, 40 L.Ed. 474. He may not charge the jury 'upon a supposed or conjectural state of facts, of which no evidence has been offered.' United States v. Breitling, 20 How. 252, 254, 255, 15 L.Ed. 900. It is important that hostile comment of the judge should not render vain the privilege of the accused to testify in his own behalf. Hicks v. United States, 150 U.S. 442, 452, 14 S.Ct. 144, 37 L.Ed. 1137; Allison v. United States, 160 U.S. 203, 207, 209, 210, 16 S.Ct. 252, 255, 40 L.Ed. 495. Thus, a statement in a charge to the jury that 'no one who was conscious of innocence would resort to concealment,' was regarded as tantamount to saying 'that all men who did so were necessarily guilty,' and as magnifying and distorting 'the...

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    ...of the facts...." (Patton, supra, 281 U.S. at p. 288, 50 S.Ct. at p. 254 (italics added), see also Quercia v. United States (1933) 289 U.S. 466, 469, 53 S.Ct. 698, 699, 77 L.Ed. 1321.) Accordingly, we have made clear that the trial court has broad latitude in fair commentary, so long as it ......
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    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Trial Evidence Foundations - 2015 Contents
    • July 31, 2015
    ...error in barring the accused from impeaching his own witness regarding the identification of the accused. Quercia v. United States , 289 U.S. 466 (1933). A federal trial judge is not a mere moderator, but is also the governor of the trial for the purpose of assuring its proper conduct in de......
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    • July 31, 2017
    ...error in barring the accused from impeaching his own witness regarding the identiication of the accused. Quercia v. United States , 289 U.S. 466 (1933). A federal trial judge is not a mere moderator, but is also the governor of the trial for the purpose of assuring its proper conduct in det......
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    ...error in barring the accused from impeaching his own witness regarding the identification of the accused. Quercia v. United States , 289 U.S. 466 (1933). A federal trial judge is not a mere moderator, but is also the governor of the trial for the purpose of assuring its proper conduct in de......
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