United States v. Alpers, No. 217

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtMINTON
Citation338 U.S. 680,70 S.Ct. 352,94 L.Ed. 457
Docket NumberNo. 217
Decision Date06 February 1950
PartiesUNITED STATES v. ALPERS

338 U.S. 680
70 S.Ct. 352
94 L.Ed. 457
UNITED STATES

v.

ALPERS.

No. 217.
Argued and Submitted Dec. 4, 1949.
Decided Feb. 6, 1950.

Mr. Joseph W. Bishop, Jr., Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. A. J. Zirpoli, San Francisco, Cal., for respondent.

Mr. Justice MINTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether the shipment of obscene phonograph records in interstate commerce is prohibited by § 245 of the Criminal Code, which makes illegal the interstate shipment of any 'obscene * * * book, pamphlet, picture, motionpicture film, paper, letter, writing, print, or other matter of indecent character.'

Page 681

Respondent was charged by an information in three counts with knowingly depositing with an express company for carriage in interstate commerce packages 'containing certain matter of an indecent character, to-wit: phonograph records impressed with recordings of obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy language and obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy stories.' Respondent, having waived jury trial, was found guilty by the District Court on two counts and was assessed a fine on each. The Court of Appeals reversed, 9 Cir., 175 F.2d 137. We granted certiorari to examine the applicability of § 245 of the Criminal Code to the facts of this case. 338 U.S. 813, 70 S.Ct. 75.

The pertinent provisions of the statute are as follows: 'Whoever shall * * * knowingly deposit or cause to be deposited with any express company or other common carrier (for carriage in interstate commerce) any obscene, lewd, or lascivious, or any filthy book, pamphlet, picture, motion-picture film, paper, letter, writing, print, or other matter of indecent character * * * shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.' 41 Stat. 1060, 18 U.S.C. § 396, now 18 U.S.C. § 1462, 18 U.S.C.A. § 1462.

It is conceded that the phonograph records were obscene and indecent. The only question is whether they come within the prohibition of the statute.

We are aware that this is a criminal statute and must be strictly construed. This means that no offense may be created except by the words of Congress used in their usual and ordinary sense. There are no constructive offenses. United States v. Resnick, 299 U.S. 207, 210, 57 S.Ct. 126, 127, 81 L.Ed. 127. The most important thing to be determined is the intent of Congress. The language of the statute may not be distorted under the guise of construction, or so limited by construction as to defeat the manifest intent

Page 682

of Congress. United States v. Raynor, 302 U.S. 540, 552, 58 S.Ct. 353, 358, 82 L.Ed. 413.1

In interpreting the statute as applied to this case the Court of Appeals invoked the rule of ejusdem generis. Since the words 'book, pamphlet, picture, motion-picture film, paper, letter, writing, print' appearing in the statute refer to objects comprehensible by sight only, the court construed the general words 'other matter of indecent character' to be limited to matter of the same genus. The Court of Appeals held phonograph records without the statute, so interpreted, since phonograph records are comprehended by the sense of hearing.

When properly applied, the rule of ejusdem generis is a useful canon of construction. But it is to be resorted to not to obscure and defeat the intent and purpose of Congress, but to elucidate its words and effectuate its intent. It cannot be employed to render general words meaningless. Mason v. United States, 260 U.S. 545, 554, 43 S.Ct. 200, 202, 67 L.Ed. 396. What is or is not a proper case for application of the rule was discussed in Gooch v. United States, 297 U.S. 124, 56 S.Ct. 395, 396, 80 L.Ed. 522. In that case a bandit and a companion had kidnaped two police officers for the purpose of avoiding arrest and had transported them across a state line. The defendant was convicted of kidnaping under a federal statute which made it an offense to transport across state lines any person who had been kidnaped 'and held for ransom or reward or otherwise.' The police officers had been held not for ransom or reward but for protection, and it was contended that the words 'or otherwise' did not cover the defendant's conduct, since under the rule of ejusdem generis, the general phrase was limited in meaning to some kind of monetary reward. This Court rejected such limiting application of the rule, saying:

Page 683

'The rule of ejusdem generis, while firmly established, is only an instrumentality for ascertaining the correct meaning of words when there is uncertainty. Ordinarily, it limits general terms which follow specific ones to matters similar to those specified; but it may not be used to defeat the obvious purpose of legislation. And, while penal statutes are narrowly construed, this does not require rejection of that sense of the words which best harmonizes with the context and the end in view.' 297 U.S. at page 128, 56 S.Ct. at page 397.

We think that to apply the rule of ejusdem generis to the present case would be 'to defeat the obvious purpose of legislation.' The obvious purpose of the legislation under consideration was to prevent the channels of interstate commerce from being used to disseminate any matter that, in its essential nature, communicates obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy ideas. The statute is more fully set out in the margin.2 It will be noted that Congress legislated with respect to a number of evils in addition to

Page 684

those proscribed by the portion of the statute under which respondent was charged. Statutes are construed in their entire context. This is a comprehensive statute, which should not be constricted by a mechanical rule of construction.

We find nothing in the statute or its history to indicate that Congress intended to limit the applicable portion of the statute to such indecent matter as is comprehended through the sense of sight. True, this statute was amended in 1920 to include 'motion-picture film.' We are not persuaded that Congress, by adding motion-picture film to the specific provisions of the statute, evidenced an intent that obscene matter not specifically added was...

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88 practice notes
  • U.S. v. Moore, No. 78-1594
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • January 2, 1980
    ...600 (1955). 123 Gooch v. United States, 297 U.S. 124, 128, 56 S.Ct. 395, 397, 80 L.Ed. 522, 526 (1936). See also United States v. Alpers, 338 U.S. 680, 683, 70 S.Ct. 352, 354, 94 L.Ed. 457, 461 124 United States v. Culbert, 435 U.S. 371, 379, 98 S.Ct. 1112, 1117, 55 L.Ed.2d 349, 356 (1978);......
  • U.S. v. New Buffalo Amusement Corp., No. 444
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • May 22, 1979
    ...is "to prevent the channels of interstate commerce from being used to disseminate" obscene material. United States v. Alpers, 338 U.S. 680, 683, 70 S.Ct. 75, 94 L.Ed. 492 (1950). Since Congress "has a legitimate interest in protecting the public commercial environment by prev......
  • Glenn v. United States, No. 16031.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of California)
    • March 30, 1955
    ...is an established rule of construction that a statute should be construed as a whole, or in its entirety. United States v. Alpers, 1950, 338 U.S. 680, 684, 70 S.Ct. 352, 94 L.Ed. 457. It follows as well that a part of the statute, e. g., a section or provision thereof, should also be constr......
  • United States v. Kaluza, No. 14–30122.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • March 11, 2015
    ...160–61 (2d Cir.2008). 49. United States v. Powell, 423 U.S. 87, 90, 96 S.Ct. 316, 46 L.Ed.2d 228 (1975); see also United States v. Alpers, 338 U.S. 680, 682–83, 70 S.Ct. 352, 94 L.Ed. 457 (1950); United States v. Silva–Chavez, 888 F.2d 1481, 1483–84 (5th Cir.1989). 50. See Ali, 552 U.S. at ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
88 cases
  • U.S. v. Moore, No. 78-1594
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • January 2, 1980
    ...600 (1955). 123 Gooch v. United States, 297 U.S. 124, 128, 56 S.Ct. 395, 397, 80 L.Ed. 522, 526 (1936). See also United States v. Alpers, 338 U.S. 680, 683, 70 S.Ct. 352, 354, 94 L.Ed. 457, 461 124 United States v. Culbert, 435 U.S. 371, 379, 98 S.Ct. 1112, 1117, 55 L.Ed.2d 349, 356 (1978);......
  • U.S. v. New Buffalo Amusement Corp., No. 444
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • May 22, 1979
    ...is "to prevent the channels of interstate commerce from being used to disseminate" obscene material. United States v. Alpers, 338 U.S. 680, 683, 70 S.Ct. 75, 94 L.Ed. 492 (1950). Since Congress "has a legitimate interest in protecting the public commercial environment by prev......
  • Glenn v. United States, No. 16031.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of California)
    • March 30, 1955
    ...is an established rule of construction that a statute should be construed as a whole, or in its entirety. United States v. Alpers, 1950, 338 U.S. 680, 684, 70 S.Ct. 352, 94 L.Ed. 457. It follows as well that a part of the statute, e. g., a section or provision thereof, should also be constr......
  • United States v. Kaluza, No. 14–30122.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • March 11, 2015
    ...160–61 (2d Cir.2008). 49. United States v. Powell, 423 U.S. 87, 90, 96 S.Ct. 316, 46 L.Ed.2d 228 (1975); see also United States v. Alpers, 338 U.S. 680, 682–83, 70 S.Ct. 352, 94 L.Ed. 457 (1950); United States v. Silva–Chavez, 888 F.2d 1481, 1483–84 (5th Cir.1989). 50. See Ali, 552 U.S. at ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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