United States v. Balint

Citation42 S.Ct. 301,258 U.S. 250,66 L.Ed. 604
Decision Date27 March 1922
Docket NumberNo. 480,480
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Mr. Wm. C. Herron, of Washington, D. C., for the United states.

Mr. Chief Justice TAFT delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a writ of error to the District Court under the Criminal Appeals Act of March 2, 1907. 34 Stat. 1246 (Comp. St. § 1704). Defendants in error were indicted for a violation of the Narcotic Act of December 17, 1914, 38 Stat. 785, 786 (Comp. St. §§ 6287g-6287q). The indictment charged them with unlawfully selling to another a certain amount of a derivative of opium and a certain amount of a derivative of coca leaves, not in pursuance of any written order on a form issued in blank for that purpose by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, contrary to the provisions of section 2 of the act. (Comp. St. § 6287h). The defendants demurred to the indictment on the ground that it failed to charge that they had sold the inhibited drugs knowing them to be such. The statute does not make such knowledge an element of the offense. The District Court sustained the demurrer and quashed the indictment. The correctness of this ruling is the question before us.

While the general rule at common law was that the scienter was a necessary element in the indictment and proof of every crime, and this was followed in regard to statutory crimes even where the statutory definition did not in terms include it (Rex v. Sleep, 8 Cox, 472), there has been a modification of this view in respect to prosecutions under statutes the purpose of which would be obstructed by such a requirement. It is a question of legislative intent to be construed by the court. It has been objected that punishment of a person for an act in violation of law when ignorant of the facts making it so, is an absence of due process of law. But that objection is considered and overruled in Shevlin-Carpenter Co. v. Minnesota, 218 U. S. 57, 69, 70, 30 Sup. Ct. 663, 666 (54 L. Ed. 930), in which it was held that in the prohibition or punishment of particular acts, the state may in the maintenance of a public policy provide 'that he who shall do them shall do them at his peril and will not be heard to plead in defense good faith or ignorance.' Many instances of this are to be found in regulatory measures in the exercise of what is called the police power where the emphasis of the statute is evidently upon achievement of some social betterment rather than the punishment of the crimes as in cases of mala in se. Commonwealth v. Mixer, 207 Mass. 141, 93 N. E. 249, 31 L. R. A. (N. S.) 467, 20 Ann. Cas. 1152; Commonwealth v. Smith, 166 Mass. 370, 44 N. E. 503; Commonwealth v. Hallett, 103 Mass. 452; People v. Kibler, 106 N. Y. 321, 12 N. E. 795; State v. Kinkead, 57 Conn. 173, 17 Atl. 855; McCutcheon v. People, 69 Ill. 601; State v. Thompson, 74 Iowa, 119, 37 N. W. 104; United States v. Leathers, 6 Sawy. 17, Fed. Cas. No. 15581; United States v. Thompson, 12 Fed. 245; United States v. Mayfield, 177 Fed. 765; United States v. 36 Bottles of Gin, 210 Fed. 271, 127 C. C. A. 119; Feeley v. United States, 236 Fed. 903, 150 C. C. A. 165; Voves v. United States, 249 Fed. 191, 161 C. C. A. 227. So, too, in the collection of taxes, the importance to the public of their collection leads the Legislature to impose on the taxpayer the burden of finding out the facts upon which his liability to pay depends and meeting it at the peril of punishment. Regina v. Woodrow, 15 M. & W. 404; Bruhn v. Rex, [1909] A. C. 317. Again where one deals with others and his mere negligence may be dangerous to them, as in selling diseased food or poison, the policy of the law may, in order to stimulate proper care, require the punishment of the negligent person though he be ignorant of the noxious character of what he sells. Hobbs v. Winchester Corporation (1910) 2 K. B. Div. 471, 483.

The question before us, therefore, is one of the construction of the statute and of inference of the intent of Congress. The Narcotic Act has been held by this court to be a taxing act with the incidental purpose of minimizing the spread of addiction to the use of poisonous and demoralizing drugs. United States v. Doremus, 249 U. S. 86, 94, 39 Sup. Ct. 214...

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497 cases
  • United States v. Corbin Farm Service, Crim. No. S-77-179.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Eastern District of California
    • January 23, 1978
    ...the field should not be a basis for conviction. The central concept is reasonableness. For example, in United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 252, 42 S.Ct. 301, 302, 66 L.Ed. 604 (1922), the defendant appealed his conviction for sale of narcotics, claiming in part that he did not know what ......
  • People v. Skinner
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • September 16, 1985
    ......Bishop finds full support in the following adjudged cases. -- United States vs. Pearce, 2 McLean, p. 14; Weaver vs. Ward, Hob., p. 134; Rex vs. Fell, 1 Salk., p. 272, ...246, 250-251, 72 S.Ct. 240, 243-244, 96 L.Ed. 288, cf. United States v. Balint (1922) 258 U.S. 250, 42 S.Ct. 301, 66 L.Ed. 604.) .         Because mens rea or wrongful ......
  • Katzev v. County of Los Angeles
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • February 25, 1959
    ...663, 54 L.Ed. 930; Williams v. State of North Carolina, 325 U.S. 226, 238, 65 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed. 1577; United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 252, 42 S.Ct. 301, 66 L.Ed. 604; People v. Darby, 114 Cal.App.2d 412, 427, 250 P.2d 743 (appeal dismissed for want of substantial federal question ......
  • United States v. Burwell, No. 06-3070
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • August 3, 2012
    ......The first is that "determining the mental state required for commission of a federal crime requires 'construction of the statute and . . . inference of the intent of Congress.'" Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600, 604-05 (1994) (quoting United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 253 (1922)). The second is that "silence on this point by itself does not necessarily suggest that Congress intended to dispense with a conventional mens rea element" because courts must "construe the statute in light of the background rules of the common law, in which the ......
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  • Overcriminalization and the Endangered Species Act: Mens Rea and Criminal Convictions for Take
    • United States
    • Environmental Law Reporter No. 46-6, June 2016
    • June 1, 2016
    ...Times, Nov. 24, 2015. 23. See Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600, 606 (1994). 24. See id. at 605; see also United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 251 (1922). 25. See Staples , 511 U.S. at 605; United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 438 U.S. 422, 436-37 (1978); see also Baker & Haun, supra no......
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    ...note 47, at 144 (citations omitted). (53.) 53 CONG. Rec. 5167 (Mar. 30, 1916) (statement of Rep. Sabath). (54.) United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 251 (1922); see also United States ex rel. Berlandi v. Reimer, 30 F. Supp. 767, 768 (S.D.N.Y. 1939) ("Moral turpitude implies something immo......
  • General Principles of Criminal Liability
    • United States
    • Environmental crimes deskbook 2nd edition Part Two
    • June 20, 2014
    ...601 (1971), rehearing denied , United States v. Freed, 403 U.S. 912 (1971) (possession of unregistered grenade); United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250 (1922) (possession of narcotics). 62. 402 U.S. at 558. 63. he defendant was prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. §834(f), which made anyone who “knowi......
  • Passive Avoidance.
    • United States
    • Stanford Law Review Vol. 71 No. 3, March 2019
    • March 1, 2019
    ...to include broadly applicable scienter requirements, even where the statute by its terms does not contain them"); United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 251 (1922) ("[T]he general rule at common law was that the scienter was a necessary element in the indictment and proof of every crime..........
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