United States v. Spector

Decision Date07 April 1952
Docket NumberNo. 443,443
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 343 U.S. 951, 72 S.Ct. 1040.

Provision of Immigration Act that alien, against whom order of deportation is outstanding, shall be guilty of felony if he shall willfully fail or refuse to make timely application in good faith for travel or other documents necessary to his departure in view of emphasis on timely application in good faith and lack of requirement that alien know visa requirements of one or more countries, contains warning sufficiently definite to free statute of any constitutional infirmity of vagueness. Immigration Act of 1917, § 20(a—c), as amended, 8 U.S.C.A. § 156(a—c); 18 U.S.C.A. § 3731.

Mr. Robert L. Stern, Washington, D.C., for appellant.

Messrs. John W. Porter, A. L. Wirin, Los Angeles, Cal., for appellee.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 20 of the Immigration Act of 1917, as amended, 39 Stat. 890, 57 Stat. 553, 64 Stat. 1010, 8 U.S.C. (Supp. IV) § 156, 8 U.S.C.A. § 156, contains provisions designed to expedite the deportation of aliens. Section 20(a) provides that the Attorney General shall direct the deportation 'to the country specified by the alien, if it is willing to accept him into its territory'. Otherwise the Attorney General shall direct the deportation to any one of a series of specified countries or if deportation to any of them is impracticable, inadvisable, or impossible, then to any country which is willing to accept the alien. Section 20(b) grants the Attorney General powers of supervision over aliens against whom deportation orders have been outstanding for more than six months and fixes penalties for violations of the regulations which the Attorney General has prescribed. Section 20(c) provides that any alien against whom a specified order of deportation is outstanding 'who shall willfully fail or refuse to depart from the United States within a period of six months from the date of such order of deportation, or from the date of the enactment of the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950, whichever is the later, or shall willfully fail or refuse to make timely application in good faith for travel or other documents necessary to his departure, * * * shall upon conviction be guilty of a felony, and shall be imprisoned not more than ten years * * *.' (Italics added.)

The later (the italicized) provision of § 20(c) is involved here. Appellee is an alien who came to this country from Russia in 1913. An order of deportation was entered against him in 1930 by reason of his advocacy of the overthrow of the Government by force and violence. An indictment was returned against him, two counts of which charged him with willfully failing and refusing to make timely application in good faith for travel or other documents necessary to his departure from the United States. The District Court sustained a motion to dismiss these two counts. It held that the statute in question was unconstitutionally vague and indefinite, because it did not specify the nature of the travel documents necessary for departure nor indicate to which country or to how many countries the alien should make application. 99 F.Supp. 778. The case is here on appeal. 18 U.S.C. (Supp. IV) § 3731, 18 U.S.C.A. § 3731.

While a statute, plain and unambiguous on its face, may be given an application that violates due process of law, we are not concerned with that problem in the present case. The question here is whether the statute on its face meets the constitutional test of certainty and definiteness. We think it does when viewed in its statutory setting.

The statutory scheme seems clear and unambiguous. The choice of a country willing to receive the alien is left first to the alien himself and then to the Attorney General. Once the country willing to receive the alien is identified, the mechanism for effecting his departure remains. The six-month period specified in § 20(c) makes clear what a 'timely' application is. The statutory words 'travel or other documents necessary to his departure' will, of course, have different meanings in reference to various countries. The forms to be filled out, the deposits to be made, the number of photographs to be furnished, and the information to be supplied will vary from country to country. But when the country to which the alien is to be deported is known, any mystery concerning the documents necessary to his departure vanishes. The words 'necessary to his departure' when applied to deportations would normally refer to a lawful departure from this country and a lawful entrance into another. the alien satisfies the statute by making timely application for such documents as the country in question requires for his admission.

The statute might well be a trap if, for example, it required the alien to know the visa requirements of one or more countries. But the emphasis of the present statute is on a 'timely application in good faith' for such documents as the country in question may require. Though the visa requirements for entrance into a particular country are in constant change, the command of the statute remains simple and intelligible. We conclude that the warning contained in the statute is sufficiently definite to free it of any constitutional infirmity of vagueness. Cf. United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, 67 S.Ct. 1538, 91 L.Ed. 1877; Jordan v. DeGeorge, 341 U.S. 223, 71 S.Ct. 703, 95 L.Ed. 886.

Another question of constitutional law is pressed upon us. It is that the statute must be declared unconstitutional because it affords a defendant no opportunity to have the court which tries him pass on the validity of the order of deportation. That question was neither raised by the appellee nor briefed nor argued here. If it had been, we might consider it. See United States v. Curtiss-Wright Corp., 299 U.S. 304, 330, 57 S.Ct. 216, 225, 81 L.Ed. 255. But when a single, naked question of constitutionality is presented, we do not search for new and different constitutional questions. Rather we refrain from passing on the constitutionality of a phase of a statute until a stage has been reached where the decision of the precise constitutional issue is necessary. See United States v. Petrillo, supra.

It will be time to consider whether the validity of the order of deportation may be tried in the criminal trial either by the court or by the jury, cf. Yakus v. United States, 321 U.S. 414, 64 S.Ct. 660, 88 L.Ed. 834; Cox v. United States, 332 U.S. 442, 68 S.Ct. 115, 92 L.Ed. 59, when and if the appellee seeks to have it tried. That question is not foreclosed by this opinion. We reserve decision on it.


Mr. Justice CLARK took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Mr. Justice BLACK, dissenting.

The only thing certain about § 20(c) of the Immigration Act of 1917, as amended, is that violation of its terms is a felony punishable by ten years' imprisonment. An alien ordered deported by the Bureau of Immigration is subject to this ten-year penalty if he 'willfully fail(s) or refuse(s) to make timely application in good faith for travel or other documents necessary to his departure'. To avoid punishment an alien must guess with unerring accuracy what answers a judge or jury1 might someday give to the following questions: (1) When is an application 'timely'? (2) What constitutes a 'good faith' application? (3) What kind of 'documents' are 'necessary to his departure'? (4) To whom must he apply for these documents?

Aliens living in this country are not necessarily sophisticated world travelers familiar with the present-day red tape that must be unwound to get from one country to another. Congress should at least indicate when, to whom, and for what the alien should apply. If, for example, the statute merely required an alien to report at a certain time and place to sign 'documents' collected by the American Department of State, the affirmative conduct demanded would at least be clear and specific. But the present statute, in my judgment, entangles aliens in a snare of vagueness from which few can escape. I think the Constitution requires more than a 'bad' guess to make a criminal.2

Mr. Justice JACKSON, with whom Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER joins, dissenting.

I think this Act to punish an alien's unlawful presence in the United States is unconstitutional for reasons apparent on its face.1 It differs in subtlety but not in substance from one held unconstitutional more than half a century ago in a decision repeatedly and recently cited with approval. Wong Wing v. United States, 163 U.S 228, 16 S.Ct. 977, 41 L.Ed. 140.2 The Act there stricken down was simple and direct. It provided that any Chinese person or person of Chinese descent adjudged by any justice, judge or commissioner of the United States not lawfully entitled to be or to remain in the United States should first be imprisoned at hard labor and thereafter removed from the United States. The Court conceded that it would be competent for Congress to declare that an alien remaining unlawfully in the United States could be criminally punished 'if such offense were to be established by a judicial trial.' 163 U.S. at page 235, 16 S.Ct. at page 980, 41 L.Ed. 140. However, it said:

'But when congress sees fit to further promote such a policy by subjecting the persons of such aliens to infamous punishment at hard labor, or by confiscating their property, we think such legislation, to be valid, must provide for a judicial trial to establish the guilt of the accused.

'No limits can be put by the courts upon the power of congress to protect, by summary methods, the country from the advent of aliens whose race or habits render them undesirable as citizens, or to expel such if they have already found their way into our land, and unlawfully remain therein. But to declare unlawful residence within the country to be an...

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