United States v. Brown

Citation68 S.Ct. 376,92 L.Ed. 442,333 U.S. 18
Decision Date02 February 1948
Docket NumberNo. 100,100
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Mr. Robert W. Ginnane, of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. Elmo B. Hunter, of Kansas City, Mo., for respondent.

Mr. Justice RUTLEDGE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Federal Escape Act requires that a sentence for escape or attempt to escape 'shall begin upon the expiration of, or upon legal release from, any sentence under which such person is held at the time of' the escape or attempt. 1 The narrow question is whether the Act requires that a sentence for attempt to escape shall begin upon the expiration of the particular sentence being served when the attempt occurs or at the expiration of the aggregate term of consecutive sentences then in effect, of which the one being served is the first.

The facts are these. Respondent was charged under two indictments in the District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. One contained two counts, the first charging conspiracy to escape, the second attempt to escape. The other indictment was for violation of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act. 41 Stat. 324, 59 Stat. 536, 18 U.S.C.A. § 408. Respondent pleaded guilty to all three charges. On October 26, 1945, he was sentenced as follows: under the first indictment charging the escape offenses, imprisonment for one year on the second count, and for two years on the first count, the sentences to run consecutively in that order; under the motor vehicle theft indictment, imprisonment for two years, to run consecutively to the other two. Thus the aggregate of the three consecutive sentences was five years.

On November 2, 1945, respondent was serving the one year term of the first sentence as ordered by the court. On that date he was being transported in custody of a United States marshal from an Arkansas jail to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas.2 During the journey's progress through Missouri he attempted to escape. This resulted in another indictment, in the Western District of Missouri, to which also respondent pleaded guilty. The District Court sentenced him to imprisonment for five years, the term 'to begin at the expiration of any sentence he is now serving, or to be served which was imposed prior to this date * * *.'

Respondent filed a motion to correct this last sentence. He contended that at the time of the last attempt he was being 'held,' within the meaning of the last sentence of the Federal Escape Act, only under the one-year sentence pronounced in the Western District of Arkansas, and that the Act required the five-year sentence under the indictment returned in Missouri to commence at the expiration of that one-year term.

The District Court overruled the motion. It held that under the statute the sentencing court could order that the sentence begin to run after the service of any one or all of respondent's three prior sentences. 67 F.Supp. 116. The Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed the judgment. Relying on the canon of strict construction of criminal statutes, it equated the statutory word 'held' to 'serving,' and concluded that a sentence for escape or attempt to escape must begin at the expiration of the particular sentence which the prisoner is serving at the time the escape or attempt occurs. Accordingly the court remanded the cause to the District Court with directions to correct the five-year sentence so that it would begin upon expiration of or legal release from the one-year sentence. 160 F.2d 310. We granted certiorari because of the importance of the question in the administration of the Federal Escape Act.

Although prison breach or other escape by prisoners from custody was a crime under the common law,3 there was no federal statute proscribing such conduct prior to the enactment of the original Federal Escape Act in 1930, 46 Stat. 327. That Act dealt only with escape or attempted escape while under sentence. It was enacted as part of a program sponsored by the Attorney General for the reorganization and improved administration of the federal penal system. H.R.Rep.No. 106, 71st Cong. 2d Sess. The Act took its present form in 1935, when it was broadened at the Attorney General's request4 to cover escape while in custody on a federal charge prior to conviction.5

The legislation reflects an unmistakable intention to provide punishment for escape or attempted escape to be superimposed upon the punishment meted out for previous offenses. This appears from the face of the statute itself. It first provides that persons escaping or attempting to escape while in custody, whether before or after conviction, shall be guilty of an offense. Then follow provisions for determining whether the offense shall be a felony or a misdemeanor, with corresponding prescriptions of penalties.

At this point the statute had no need tog o further if the intention had been merely to leave to the court's discretion whether the penalties, within the limits prescribed, should run concurrently or consecutively in accordance with the generally prevailing practice. On that assumption the statute was complete, without addition of the last two sentences. But in that form the Act would have left the court with discretion to make the sentence run concurrently or consecutively with the other sentences previously in effect or put into effect in the case or cases pending when the escape occurred.

Precisely to avoid this more was added, in the explicit provisions that 'the sentence imposed hereunder shall be in addition to and independent of any sentence imposed in the case in connection with which such person is held in custody at the time of such escape or attempt to escape. If such person be under sentence at the time of such offense, the sentence imposed hereunder shall begin upon the expiration of, or upon legal release from, any sentence under which such person is held at the time of such escape or attempt to escape.' (Emphasis added.)

These sentences foreclosed, and were intended to foreclose, what the earlier portions of the Act had left open, namely, the court's power to make the escape sentence run concurrently with the other sentences.6 Whether the escape was before or after conviction, additional punishment was made mandatory, in the one case by the explicit requirement, 'in addition to and independent of' and sentence imposed; in the other by the command that the escape sentence 'shall begin upon the expiration of, or upon legal release from, any sentence,' etc. The differing verbal formulations were necessary to meet the different 'before' and 'after' conviction situations. But the two provisions had one and the same purpose, to require additional punishment for the escape offense. The idea of allowing the escape sentences to run concurrently with the other sentences was completely inconsistent with this common and primary object, as well as with the wording of the two concluding clauses. In many cases such concurrent sentences would nullify the statutory purpose altogether; in others, they would do so partially.7

Moreover, imposition of such additional punishment had been the prime object, indeed the only one, of the original Escape Act, which was applicable only to escapes after conviction. It made such escapes or attempts 'offenses,' punishable by imprisonment for not more than five years, 'such sentence to begin upon the expiration of or upon legal release from the sentence for which said person was originally confined.'8 This provision, though differing from the wording of the last sentence of the present Act, had the same prime object. Concurrent sentences were as inconsistent with its terms as with those of the present Act, for in many cases like this one they would have added no further punishment in fact.

Congress, it is true, did not cast the original Act in terms specifically relating to a situation comprehending consecutive sentences existing at the time of the escape or attempt, as more careful drafting of the At would have required to insure achieving the object of adding independent punishment in all cases. Its concentration upon that main aspect of the legislation apparently led it to reduced emphasis upon and care in the definition of the situations to which the Act would apply.

Nevertheless in view of the Act's broad purpose, it would be difficult to conclude that the original phrasing, 'the sentence for which said person was originally confined,' was intended to apply only to the sentence, one of several consecutive ones, which the prisoner happened to be serving when the escape or the attempt occurred, or that the Act would be effective only where the prisoner was serving time under a single...

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