United States v. Petrillo, No. 954

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBLACK
Citation91 L.Ed. 1877,332 U.S. 1,67 S.Ct. 1538
PartiesUNITED STATES v. PETRILLO
Docket NumberNo. 954
Decision Date23 June 1947

332 U.S. 1
67 S.Ct. 1538
91 L.Ed. 1877
UNITED STATES

v.

PETRILLO.

No. 954.
Argued May 5, 6, 1947.
Decided June 23, 1947.

[Syllabus from pages 1-3 intentionally omitted]

Page 3

Appeal from the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Illinois.

Messrs. Douglas W. McGregor, Asst. to the Atty. Gen., and Robert L. Stern, of Washington, D.C., for appellant.

Messrs. Henry Kaiser and Joseph A. Padway, both of Washington, D.C., for appellee.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The District Court dismissed a criminal information filed against the respondent, James C. Petrillo, on the ground that the statute on which the information was founded was unconstitutional. 68 F.Supp. 845. The case is here on direct appeal by the Government as authorized by the Criminal Appeals Act. 18 U.S.C., Supp. V, § 682, 18 U.S.C.A. § 682. The information charged a violation of the Communications Act of 1934, 48 Stat. 1064, 1102, as amended by an Act of April 16, 1946. 60 Stat. 89. 47 U.S.C.A. § 506. The specific provisions of the Amendment charged to have been violated read:

'Sec. 506. (a) It shall be unlawful, by the use or express or implied threat of the use of force, violence, intimidation, or duress, or by the use or express or implied threat of the use of other means, to coerce, compel or constrain or attempt to coerce, compel, or constrain a licensee—

'(1) to employ or agree to employ, in connection with the conduct of the broadcasting business of such licensee, any person or persons in excess of the number of employees needed by such licensee to perform actual services; or

'(d) Whoever willfully violates any provision of subsection (a) or (b) of this section shall, upon con-

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viction thereof, be punished by imprisonment for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than $1,000, or both.' Pub.L.No.344, 79th Cong., 2d Sess.

The information alleged that a radio broadcasting company, holding a federal license, had, for several years immediately preceding, employed 'certain persons who were sufficient and adequate in number to perform all of the actual services needed * * * in connection with the conduct of its broadcasting business.' The information further charged that the respondent, Petrillo, 'wilfully, by the use of force, intimidation, duress and by the use of other means, did attempt to coerce, compel and constrain said licensee to employ and agree to employ, in connection with the conduct of its radio broadcasting business, three additional persons not needed by said licensee to perform actual services * * *.'

The coercion was allegedly accmplished i n the following manner:

'(1) By directing and causing three musicians, members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, theretofore employed by the said licensee in connection with the conduct of its broadcasting business, to discontinue their employment with said licensee;

'(2) By directing and causing said three employees and other persons, members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, not to accept employment by said licensee; and

'(3) By placing and causing to be placed a person as a picket in front of the place of business of said licensee.'

The only challenge to the information was a motion to dismiss on the ground that the Act on which the information was based (a) abridges freedom of speech in contravention of the First Amendment; (b) is repugnant to the Fifth Amendment because it defines a crime in

Page 5

terms that are excessively vague, and denies equal protection of the law and liberty of contract; (c) imposes involuntary servitude in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment.1 The District Court dismissed the information, holding that the 1946 Amendment on which it was based violates the First, Fifth, and Thirteenth Amendments.

Two general principles which concern our disposition of appeals involving constitutional questions have special application to this case: We have consistently refrained from passing on the constitutionality of a statute until a case involving it has reached a stage where the decision of a precise constitutional issue is a necessity. The reasons underlying this principle and illustrations of the strictness with which it has been applied appear in the opinion of the Court in the Rescue Army v. Municipal Court, 67 S.Ct. 130, and cases there collected. And in reviewing a direct appeal from a District Court under the Criminal Appeals Act, supra, our review is limited to the validity or construction of the contested statute. For 'The Government's appeal does not open the whole case.' United States v. Borden Co., 308 U.S. 188, 193, 60 S.Ct. 182, 186, 84 L.Ed. 181.

First. One holding of the District Court was that, as contended here, the statute is repugnant to the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment because its words, 'number of employees needed by such licensee,' are so vague, indefinite and uncertain that'persons of ordinary intelligence cannot in advance tell whether a certain action or course of action would be within its prohibition * * *' The information here, up to the place where it specifically charges the particular means used to coerce the licensee, substantially employs this statutory language. And the motion to dismiss on the ground of vagueness and indefi-

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niteness squarely raises the question of whether the section invoked in the indictment is void in toto, barring all further actions under it, in this, and every other case. Cf. United States v. Thompson, 251 U.S. 407, 412, 40 S.Ct. 289, 291, 64 L.Ed. 333. Many questions of a statute's constitutionality as applied can best await the refinement of the issues by pleading, construction of the challenged statute and pleadings, and, sometimes, proof. Rescue Army v. Municipal Court, supra; Watson v. Buck, 313 U.S. 387, 402, 61 S.Ct. 962, 967, 85 L.Ed. 1416. Borden's Farm Products Company v. Baldwin, 293 U.S. 194, 204, 210, and concurring opinion at page 213, 55 S.Ct. 187, 189, 192, at page 193, 79 L.Ed. 281. But no refinement or clarification of issues which we can reasonably anticipate would bring into better focus the question of whether the contested section is written so vaguely and indefinitely that one whose conduct it affected could only guess what it meant. Consequently, since this phase of the appeal raises a question of validity of a statute within our jurisdiction under the Criminal Appeals Act, supra, and is ripe for our decision, we turn to the merits of the contention.

We could not susain this p rovision of the Act if we agreed with the contention that persons of ordinary intelligence would be unable to know when their compulsive actions would force a person against his will to hire employees he did not need. Connally v. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391, 46 S.Ct. 126, 127, 70 L.Ed. 322; Lanzetta v. State of New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451, 59 S.Ct. 618, 83 L.Ed. 888. But we do not agree. Of course, as respondent points out, there are many factors that might be considered in determining how many employees are needed on a job. But the same thing may be said about most questions which must be submitted to a fact-finding tribunal in order to enforce statutes. Certainly, an employer's statements as to the number of employees 'needed' is not conclusive as to that question. It, like the alleged wilfullness of a defendant, must be decided in the light of all the evidence.

Page 7

Clearer and more precise language might have been framed by Congress to express what it meant by 'number of employees needed.' But none occurs to us, nor has any better language been suggested, effectively to carry out what appears to have been the Congressional purpose. The argument really seems to be that it is impossible for a jury or court ever to determine how many employees a business needs, and that, therefore, no statutory language could meet the problem Congress had in mind. If this argument should be accepted, the result would be that no legislature could make it an offense for a person to compel another to hire employees, no matter how unnecessary they were, and however desirable a legislature might consider suppression of the practice to be.

The Constitution presents no such insuperable obstacle to legislation. We think that the language Congress used provides an adequate warning as to what conduct falls under its ban, and marks boundaries sufficiently distinct for judges and juries fairly to administer the law in accordance with the will of Congress. That there may be marginal cases in which it is difficult to determine the side of the line on which a particular fact situation falls is no sufficient reason to hold the language too ambiguous to define a criminal offense. Robinson v. United States, 324 U.S. 282, 285, 286, 65 S.Ct. 666, 668, 669, 89 L.Ed. 944. It would strain the requirement for certainty in criminal law standards too near the breaking point to say that it was impossible judicially to determine whether a person knew when he was wilfully attempting to compel another to hire unneeded employees. See Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91, 65 S.Ct. 1031, 89 L.Ed. 1495, 162 A.L.R. 1330; United States v. Ragen, 314 U.S. 513, 522, 524, 525, 62 S.Ct. 374, 377, 378, 379, 86 L.Ed. 383. The Constitution has erected procedural safeguards to protect against conviction for crime except for violation of laws which have clearly defined conduct thereafter to be punished; but the Constitution does not require impossible stand-

Page 8

ards. The language here challenged conveys sufficiently definite warning as to the proscribed conduct when measured by common understanding and practices. The Constitution requires no more.

Second. It is contended that the statute denies equal protection of the laws to radio-broadcasting employees as a class, and, for this reason, violates the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. This contention, raised by the motion to dismiss, and...

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727 practice notes
  • United States v. Nelson, No. G78-115 CR5.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court (Western District Michigan)
    • February 15, 1980
    ...255, 43 L.Ed. 505; Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 270, n.30, 72 S.Ct. 240, 253, 96 L.Ed. 288. Cf. United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, 10-11, 67 S.Ct. 1538, 1543, 91 L.Ed. 1877. That these basic principles of fundamental fairness retain their full vitality under modern concept......
  • Gomez v. Wilson, No. 71-1484.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • March 23, 1973
    ...98 L.Ed. 650 (1948); United Pub. Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75, 90, 67 S.Ct. 556, 91 L.Ed. 754 (1947). 25 United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, 12, 67 S.Ct. 1538, 91 L.Ed. 1877 (1947); Borden's Farm Prods. Co. v. Baldwin, 293 U.S. 194, 210-213, 55 S.Ct. 187, 79 L.Ed. 281 (1934); City of......
  • Haviland v. Butz, No. 74-1322
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • March 23, 1976
    ...(1964). 55 Washington v. United States, supra note 54, 130 U.S.App.D.C. at 382, 401 F.2d at 923. See also United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, 8-9, 67 S.Ct. 1538, 1542-1543, 91 L.Ed. 1877, 1883-1884 (1947); Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 370, 47 S.Ct. 641, 646, 71 L.Ed. 1095, 1103-1......
  • United States v. Larson, No. 07–CR–304S.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court of Western District of New York
    • August 10, 2011
    ...594, 9 L.Ed.2d 561 (1963) (citing Jordan v. De George, 341 U.S. 223, 231, 71 S.Ct. 703, 95 L.Ed. 886 (1951), and United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, 7, 67 S.Ct. 1538, 91 L.Ed. 1877 (1947)).IV. CONCLUSION For the foregoing reasons, this Court finds that the Magistrate Judge's Report and R......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
727 cases
  • United States v. Nelson, No. G78-115 CR5.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court (Western District Michigan)
    • February 15, 1980
    ...255, 43 L.Ed. 505; Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 270, n.30, 72 S.Ct. 240, 253, 96 L.Ed. 288. Cf. United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, 10-11, 67 S.Ct. 1538, 1543, 91 L.Ed. 1877. That these basic principles of fundamental fairness retain their full vitality under modern concept......
  • Gomez v. Wilson, No. 71-1484.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • March 23, 1973
    ...98 L.Ed. 650 (1948); United Pub. Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75, 90, 67 S.Ct. 556, 91 L.Ed. 754 (1947). 25 United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, 12, 67 S.Ct. 1538, 91 L.Ed. 1877 (1947); Borden's Farm Prods. Co. v. Baldwin, 293 U.S. 194, 210-213, 55 S.Ct. 187, 79 L.Ed. 281 (1934); City of......
  • Haviland v. Butz, No. 74-1322
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • March 23, 1976
    ...(1964). 55 Washington v. United States, supra note 54, 130 U.S.App.D.C. at 382, 401 F.2d at 923. See also United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, 8-9, 67 S.Ct. 1538, 1542-1543, 91 L.Ed. 1877, 1883-1884 (1947); Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 370, 47 S.Ct. 641, 646, 71 L.Ed. 1095, 1103-1......
  • United States v. Larson, No. 07–CR–304S.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court of Western District of New York
    • August 10, 2011
    ...594, 9 L.Ed.2d 561 (1963) (citing Jordan v. De George, 341 U.S. 223, 231, 71 S.Ct. 703, 95 L.Ed. 886 (1951), and United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, 7, 67 S.Ct. 1538, 91 L.Ed. 1877 (1947)).IV. CONCLUSION For the foregoing reasons, this Court finds that the Magistrate Judge's Report and R......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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