United States v. Johnson

Decision Date18 December 1944
Docket NumberNo. 43,43
Citation323 U.S. 273,65 S.Ct. 249,89 L.Ed. 236
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Appeal from the District Court of the United States for the District of Delaware.

Mr. W. Marvin Smith, of Washington, D.C., for appellant.

Mr. H. Albert Young, of Wilmington, Del., for appellees.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the construction of the Federal Denture Act of 1942, 56 Stat. 1087, 18 U.S.C. §§ 420f to 420 h (Supp.1943), 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 420f to 420h, which provides that '* * * it shall be unlawful, in the course of the conduct of a business of constructing or supplying dentures from casts or impressions sent through the mails or in interstate commerce, to use the mails or any instrumentality of interstate commerce for the purpose of sending or bringing into * * *' a State or Territory any denture the cast of which was taken by a person not licensed to practice dentistry in the State into which the denture is sent. An information, filed October 4, 1943, in the District Court for the District of Delaware, charged that appellees put into the mails at Chicago for delivery in Houston, Delaware, dentures in violation of the Delaware laws pertaining to dental practice, and thereby violated the Federal Denture Act. The information was quashed on the ground that prosecution of appellees could only be had where the illegal dentures were deposited. D.C., 53 F.Supp. 596. A second information, adding counts alleging transmission into and delivery in Delaware, was quashed by entry of a formal order referring to the court's earlier opinion.1 The Government has appealed directly to this Court under the Criminal Appeals Act. 34 Stat. 1246, as amended, 18 U.S.C. § 682 (Supp.1943), 18 U.S.C.A. § 682.

Must these appellees be tried in the Northern district of Illinois or may they be tried in the district of any State through which the dentures were carried including Delaware, the place of delivery? Has Congress authorized such discretion in the enforcement of this Act? If it has, there is an end to the matter, for Congress may constitutionally make the practices which led to the Federal Denture Act triable in any federal district through which an offending denture is transported. Armour Packing Co. v United States, 209 U.S. 56, 28 S.Ct. 428, 52 L.Ed. 681. An accused is so triable, if a fair reading of the Act requires it. But if the enactment reasonably permits the trial of the sender of outlawed dentures to be confined to the district of sending, and that of the importer to the district into which they are brought, such construction should be placed upon the Act. Such construction, while not required by the compulsions of Article III, § 2 of the Constitution and of the Sixth Amendment, is more consonant with the considerations of historic experience and policy which underlie those safeguards in the Constitution regarding the trial of crimes.

Aware of the unfairness and hardship to which trial in an environment alien to the accused exposes him, the Framers wrote into the Constitution that 'The Trial of all Crimes * * * shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed * * *.' Article III, § 2, cl. 3. As though to underscore the importance of this safeguard, it was reinforced by the provision of the Bill of Rights requiring trial 'by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.' Sixth Amendment. By utilizing the doctrine of a continuing offense, Congress may, to be sure, provide that the locality of a crime shall extend over the whole area through which force propelled by an offender operates. Thus, an illegal use of the mails or of other instruments of commerce may subject the user to prosecution in the district where he sent the goods, or in the district of their arrival, or in any intervening district. Plainly enough, such leeway not only opens the door to needless hardship to an accused by prosecution remote from home nd from appropriate facilities for defense. It also leads to the appearance of abuses, if not to abuses, in the selection of what may be deemed a tribunal favorable to the prosecution.

These are matters that touch closely the fair administration of criminal justice and public confidence in it, on which it ultimately rests. These are important factors in any consideration of the effective enforcement of the criminal law. They have been adverted to, from time to time, by eminent judges; and Congress has not been unmindful of them. Questions of venue in criminal cases, therefore, are not merely matters of formal legal procedure. They raise deep issues of public policy in the light of which legislation must be construed. If an enactment of Congress equally permits the underlying spirit of the constitutional concern for trial in the vicinage to be respected rather than to be disrespected, construction should go in the direction of constitutional policy even though not commanded by it.

It is significant that when Congress desires to give a choice of trial, it does so by specific venue provisions giving jurisdiction to prosecute in any criminal court of the United States through which a process of wrongdoing moves. Such was the situation in Armour Packing Co. v. United States, supra. The offense there was under the Elkins Act for the transportation of goods at illegal freight rates, and Congress specifically provided for prosecution in any district 'through which the transportation may have been conducted.' 32 Stat. 847, as amended, 49 U.S.C. § 41(1), 49 U.S.C.A. § 41(1).

In the Federal Denture Act Congress did not make provision for trial in any district through which the goods were shipped. The absence of such a provision would in itself be significant. Its significance is enhanced when it appears that the attention of Congress was directed by the Postmaster General to the desirability of authority for a discretionary trial either at the place of shipment or at the place or receipt. He wrote to the Chairman of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce 'that consideration should be given to the advisability of having the measure provide for prosecution of violators in the jurisdiction where the material is caused to be delivered as well as in the jurisdiction from which it is sent'. Hearings before Subcommittee of House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce on H.R. 5674, 77th Cong., 2d Sess. (1942) p. 3. And the Committee also invited the viewpoint of representatives of the Department of Justice 'on the language of the bill'. Id. at 28. In view of the keen awareness of enforcing officials as well as that of the members of the Committee on Interstate Commerce of the problems raised by venue in criminal trials, it is inadmissible to suggest either oversight on the part of Congress in failing to make provision for choice of venue or to make the cavalier assumption that that which is specifically provided for in other enactments i.e., trial in more than one district—was authorized but through parsimony of language left unexpressed in the Federal Denture Act.

The absence of a venue provision such as that which Congress wrote into the Elkins Act is far more rationally explained by due regard to the difference between the offenses under the Elkins and the Federal Denture Acts respectively. The venue provision under the Elkins Act underlines the offense defined by that Act, which was not the illegal sending or the bringing of goods but their 'transportation'. That—transportation—is inescapably a process, a continuing phenomenon. The Federal Denture Act did not make 'transportation' the offense. It proscribed the use of the mails for 'the purpose of sending or bringing into any State' unlawful dentures. The Act thereby hit two types of violators—the sender and the unlicensed dentist who brings in dentures from without. It is a reasonable and not a strained construction to read the statute to mean that the crime of the sender is complete when he uses the mails in Chicago, and the crime of the unlicensed dentist in California or Florida or Delaware, who orders the dentures from Chicago, is committed in the State into which he brings the dentures. As a result, the trial of the sender is restricted to Illinois and that of the unlicensed dentist to Delaware or Florida or California. The illicit sender in Chicago cannot be hauled for trial across the continent, and, conversely, the unlicensed dentist cannot be compelled to stand trial in Chicago.

The large policy back of the constitutional safeguards counsels against the unrestricted construction for which the Government contends when Congress has not commanded it; and no considerations of expediency require it. Prosecutions of federal crimes are under the general supervision of the Attorney General of the United States; United States Attorneys do not exercise autonomous authority. The vindication of the Federal Denture Act therefore does not depend upon the willingness of some local United States Attorney to prosecute on behalf of a local victim. While it might facilitate the Government's prosecution in a case like this to have its witnesses near the place of trial, there must be balanced against the inconvenience of transporting the Government's witnesses to trial at the place of the sender the serious hardship of defending prosecutions in places remote from home (including the accused's difficulties, financial and otherwise, see R.S. § 878, 28 U.S.C. § 656, 28 U.S.C.A. § 656, of marshalling his witnesses), as well as the temptation to abuses, already referred to, in the administration of criminal justice. Inasmuch as the statute permits and does not forbid this construction, the judgment below should be affirmed.


Mr. Justice MURPHY, concurring.

I join in the opinion of the Court and believe that the judgment should be affirmed.

Congress has the constitutional power to fix venue at...

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