Smith v. United States

Citation99 L.Ed. 192,348 U.S. 147,75 S.Ct. 194
Decision Date06 December 1954
Docket NumberNo. 52,52
PartiesDaniel SMITH, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES of America
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Mr.W. Arthur Garrity, Jr., Boston, Mass., for petitioner.

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

Mr. Justice CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is the third of the net worth cases and the first dealing with the Government's use of extrajudicial statements made by the accused. Petitioner and his wife were jointly tried on five counts charging them with willful attempts to evade and defeat their income taxes for the years 1946 through 1950. A motion for acquittal was granted as to the wife on all five counts, and as to petitioner on the fifth count (for the year 1950). The jury found petitioner guilty on the first four counts, and the conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. 210 F.2d 496. We granted certiorari in order to pass on the issues raised by the prosecution's use of defendant's extrajudicial statements. 347 U.S. 1010, 74 S.Ct. 868.

The Government's theory was that the increases in the net worth of petitioner and his wife exceeded their reported income for each of the prosecution years, and that these increments represented taxable income. The evidence tended to show that petitioner and his wife were persons of moderate means prior to 1945, and that toward the end of that year petitioner acquired a racing-news service. In the four succeeding years, the prosecution years here in issue, petitioner and his wife acquired a large amount of visible wealth in the form of bank accounts, real estate, securities, and other assets. The evidence, taken as a whole, tended to prove that petitioner and his wife had understated their income for the four-year period of by over $190,000.

The issues in this case stem from a statement signed by the petitioner and delivered to the Government agents along with a check, the latter supposedly representing the amount of tax he thought due and owing.1 The statement, a five-page document, included tables on petitioner's securities, prior tax returns, living expenses, and a listing of petitioner's assets for each of the years 1945 through 1949, showing changes in his net worth over the prosecution period. While each of the pages was headed by the names of petitioner and his wife, the statement was signed only by the petitioner. His signature appeared after a clause describing the listing of assets as 'my true net worth for the period covered herein.'

Admissibility of the Statement.

Petitioner contends that his net worth statement should not have been admitted in evidence because it was procured pursuant to an understanding between petitioner and a Government agent that the case would be closed and the petitioner granted immunity. See Ziang Sung Wan v. United States, 266 U.S. 1, 14, 45 S.Ct. 1, 3, 69 L.Ed. 131; Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532, 542—543, 18 S.Ct. 183, 186—187, 42 L.Ed. 568; Wilson v. United States, 162 U.S. 613, 622—623, 16 S.Ct. 895, 899, 40 L.Ed. 1090; Sparf and Hansen v. United States, 156 U.S. 51, 55, 15 S.Ct. 273, 275, 39 L.Ed. 343. Petitioner's accountant, who carried on negotiations with this Government agent, testified that the agent had promised to close the case if the net worth statement and a check to cover the tax deficiency were forthcoming, and that he, the accountant, would never have submitted the statement had he not believed that the case would be closed on this basis. The Government agent testified that he was aware of no such understanding and that he had made no promises to close the case. After a pretrial hearing on petitioner's motion to suppress evidence, the trial judge refused to suppress the net worth statement. During the course of the trial, he refused to hold a hearing outside the presence of the jury to determine preliminary the statement's admissibility. He submitted the issue to the jury with the instruction that they were to reject the statement, and all evidence obtained through it, if 'trickery, fraud or deceit' were practiced on petitioner or his accountant.

The issue of fraud or deceit on the part of the Government agent was properly submitted to the jury, and the jury, in arriving at its general verdict, could have found from the conflicting evidence that no fraudulent inducement had been offered petitioner or his accountant. Petitioner cannot complain that he was denied a voir dire, cf. United States v. Carignan, 342 U.S. 36, 72 S.Ct. 97, 96 L.Ed. 48, since the trial judge had already held a hearing on this issue in passing on the pretrial motion to suppress evidence. Moreover, the only evidence offered by petitioner in seeking this hearing during the trial was the testimony of petitioner's accountant, evidence which had been heard in the pretrial hearing and was narrated again to judge and jury after the voir dire had been denied. Under these circumstances, it cannot be said that the refusal to hold a preliminary hearing deprived petitioner of any substantial right.

Corroboration of Petitioner's Statement.

Petitioner's second major objection is that his net worth statement, as it related to his opening net worth, was not corroborated—or was insufficiently corroborated—by independent evidence. Petitioner's statement listed his opening net worth as follows:

Bank account...........$ 1,079.60

Residence.............. 12,000.00

Automobile........... __2,000.00

Total assets......... $15,079.60 The Government agents credited petitioner with a higher opening net worth:

Cash in banks ......... $8,058.58

Drug store partnership.. 5,618.39

Real estate............ 18,600.00

Furniture............... 2,000.00


Total............... $36,276.97

In determining these opening net worth figures, the Government agents relied in part on figures furnished by petitioner in his net worth statement and in other of his extrajudicial admissions—for the autos, the furniture, and one parcel of real estate. Any variation in these figures would not materially affect the result.2 But petitioner further complains that the Government did not corroborate the negative implications of his net worth statement, that he did not have at the end of 1945 any substantial assets—for example, cash on hand—which were not reflected in his or the Government's net worth computation. The question presented, therefore, is whether there is sufficient independent evidence to corroborate petitioner's extrajudicial admission that he did not have sufficient assets at the starting point to account for the increases in net worth attributed to him in the prosecution years.

The general rule that an accused may not be convicted on his own uncorroborated confession has previously been recognized by this Court, Warszower v. United States, 312 U.S. 342, 61 S.Ct. 603, 85 L.Ed. 876; Isaacs v. United States, 159 U.S. 487, 16 S.Ct. 51, 40 L.Ed. 229; cf. Miles v. United States, 103 U.S. 304, 311 312, 26 L.Ed. 481, and has been consistently applied in the lower federal courts and in the overwhelming majority of state courts, Forte v. United States, 68 App.D.C. 111, 94 F.2d 236, 127 A.L.R. 1130; 7 Wigmore, Evidence, §§ 2070—2072. Its purpose is to prevent 'errors in convictions based upon untrue confessions alone', Warszower v. United States, supra, 312 U.S. at 347, 61 S.Ct. at page 606; its foundation lies in a long history of judicial experience with confessions and in the realization that sound law enforcement requires police investigations which extend beyond the words of the accused. Confessions may be unreliable because they are coerced or induced, and although separate doctrines exclude involuntary confessions from consideration by the jury, Bram v. United States, supra; Wilson v. United States, supra, further caution is warranted because the accused may be unable to establish the involuntary nature of his statements. Moreover, though a statement may not be 'involuntary' within the meaning of this exclusionary rule, still its reliability may be suspect if it is extracted from one who is under the pressure of a police investigation—whose words may reflect the strain and confusion attending his predicament rather than a clear reflection of his past. Finally, the experience of the courts, the police and the medical profession recounts a number of false confessions voluntarily made, Note, 28 Ind.L.J. 374. These are the considerations which justify a restriction on the power of the jury to convict, for this experience with confessions is not shared by the average juror. Nevertheless, because this rule does infringe on the province of the primary finder of facts, its application should be scrutinized lest the restrictions it imposes surpass the dangers which gave rise to them.

The first issue is whether the requirement of corroboration may properly be applied to the crime of tax evasion. The corroboration rule, at its inception, served an extremely limited function. In order to convict of serious crimes of violence, then capital offenses, independent proof was required that someone had indeed inflicted the violence, the so-called corpus delicti. Once the existence of the crime was established, however, the guilt of the accused could be based on his own otherwise uncorroborated confession. But in a crime such as tax evasion there is no tangible injury which can be isolated as a corpus delicti. As to this crime, it cannot be shown that the crime has been committed without identifying the accused. Thus we are faced with the choice either of applying the corroboration rule to this offense and according the accused even greater protection than the rule affords to a defendant in a homicide prosecution, Evans v. United States, 8 Cir., 122 F.2d 461; Murray v. United States, 53 App.D.C. 119, 288 F. 1008, or of finding the rule wholly inapplicable because of the nature of the offense, stripping the accused of...

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