United States v. Turley, 289

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation56 A.L.R.2d 1300,1 L.Ed.2d 430,77 S.Ct. 397,352 U.S. 407
Docket NumberNo. 289,289
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Appellant, v. James Vernon TURLEY
Decision Date25 February 1957

Mr. Roger D. Fisher, Washington, D.C., for the appellant.

Mr. Fenton L. Martin, Baltimore, Md., for the appellee.

Mr. Justice BURTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the meaning of the word 'stolen' in the following provision of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, commonly known as the Dyer Act:

'Whoever transports in interstate or foreign commerce a motor vehicle or aircraft, knowing the same to have been stolen, shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.'1

The issue before us is whether the meaning of the word 'stolen,' as used in this provision, is limited to a taking which amounts to common-law larceny, or whether it includes an embezzlement or other felonious taking with intent to deprive the owner of the rights and benefits of ownership. For the reasons hereafter stated, we accept the broader interpretation.

In 1956, an information based on this section was filed against James Vernon Turley in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. It charged that Turley, in South Carolina, lawfully obtained possession of an automobile from its owner for the purpose of driving certain of their friends to the homes of the latter in South Carolina, but that, without permission of the owner and with intent to steal the automobile, Turley converted it to his own use and unlawfully transported it in interstate commerce to Baltimore, Maryland, where he sold it without permission of the owner.2 The information thus charged Turley with transporting the automobile in interstate commerce knowing it to have been obtained by embezzlement rather than by common-law larceny.

Counsel appointed for Turley moved to dismiss the information on the ground that it did not state facts sufficient to constitute an offense against the United States. He contended that the word 'stolen' as used in the Act referred only to takings which constitute common-law larceny and that the acts charged did not. The District Court agreed and dismissed the information. 141 F.Supp. 527. The United States concedes that the facts alleged in the information do not constitute common-law larceny, but disputes the holding that a motor vehicle obtained by embezzlement is not 'stolen' within the meaning of the Act. The Government appealed directly to this Court under 18 U.S.C. § 3731, 18 U.S.C.A. § 3731 because the dismissal was based upon a construction of the statute upon which the information was founded. We noted probable jurisdiction. 352 U.S. 816, 77 S.Ct. 65, 1 L.Ed.2d 44.

Decisions involving the meaning of 'stolen' as used in the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act did not arise frequently until comparatively recently. Two of the earlier cases interpreted 'stolen' as meaning statutory larceny as defined by the State in which the taking occurred.3 The later decisions rejected that interpretation but divided on whether to give 'stolen' a uniformly narrow meaning restricted to common-law larceny, or a uniformly broader meaning inclusive of embezzlement and other felonious takings with intent to deprive the owner of the rights and benefits of ownership.4 The Fifth, Eighth and Tenth Circuits favored the narrow definition,5 while the Fourth, Sixth and Ninth Circuits favored the broader one.6 We agree that in the absence of a plain indication of an intent to incorporate diverse state laws into a federal criminal statute, the meaning of the federal statute should not be dependent on state law. See Jerome v. United States, 1943, 318 U.S. 101, 104, 63 S.Ct. 483, 485, 87 L.Ed. 640; United States v. Handler, 2 Cir., 1944, 142 F.2d 351, 354.

We recognize that where a federal criminal statute uses a common-law term of established meaning without otherwise defining it, the general practice is to give that term its common-law meaning.7 But 'stolen' (or 'stealing') has no accepted common-law meaning. On this point the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently said:

'But while 'stolen' is constantly identified with larceny, the term was never at common law equated or exclusively dedicated to larceny. 'Steal' (originally 'stale') at first denoted in general usage a taking through secrecy, as implied in 'stealth,' or through stratagem, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Expanded through the years, it became the generic designation for dishonest acquisition, but it never lost its initial connotation. Nor in law is 'steal' or 'stolen' a word of art. Blackstone does not mention 'steal' in defining larceny—'the felonious taking and carrying away of the personal goods of another'—or in expounding its several elements. IV Commentaries 229 et seq.' Boone v. United States, 4 Cir., 1956, 235 F.2d 939, 940.

Webster's New International Dictionary (2d ed., 1953) likewise defines 'stolen' as 'Obtained or accomplished by theft, stealth, or craft * * *.' Black's Law Dictionary (4th ed., 1951) states that 'steal' 'may denote the criminal taking of personal property either by larceny, embezzlement, or false pretenses.'8 Furthermore, 'stolen' and 'steal' have been used in federal criminal statutes, and the courts interpreting those words have declared that they do not have a necessary common-law meaning coterminous with larceny and exclusive of other theft crimes.9 Freed from a common-law meaning, we should give 'stolen' the meaning consistent with the context in which it appears.

'That criminal statutes are to be construed strictly is a proposition which calls for the citation of no authority. But this does not mean that every criminal statute must be given the narrowest possible meaning in complete disregard of the purpose of the legislature.' United States v. Bramblett, 1955, 348 U.S. 503, 509—510, 75 S.Ct. 504, 508, 99 L.Ed. 594; see also, United States v. Sullivan, 1948, 332 U.S. 689, 893 694, 68 S.Ct. 331, 334, 92 L.Ed. 297.

It is, therefore, appropriate to consider the purpose of the Act and to gain what light we can from its legislative history.

By 1919, the law of most States against local theft had developed so as to include not only common-law larceny but embezzlement, false pretenses, larceny by trick, and other types of wrongful taking. The advent of the automobile, however, created a new problem with which the States found it difficult to deal. The automobile was uniquely suited to felonious taking whether by larceny, embezzlement or false pretenses. It was a valuable, salable article which itself supplied the means for speedy escape. 'The automobile (became) the perfect chattel for modern large-scale theft.'10 This challenge could be best met through use of the Federal Government's jurisdiction over interstate commerce. The need for federal action increased with the number, distribution and speed of the motor vehicles until, by 1919, it became a necessity.11 The result was the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act.

This background was reflected in the Committee Report on the bill presented by its author and sponsor, Representative Dyer. H.R.Rep. No. 312, 66th Cong., 1st Sess. This report, entitled 'Theft of Automobiles,' pointed to the increasing number of automobile thefts, the resulting financial losses, and the increasing cost of automobile theft insurance. It asserted that state laws were inadequate to cope with the problem because the offenders evaded state officers by transporting the automobiles across state lines where associates received and sold them. Throughout the legislative hisoty Congress used the word 'stolen' as synonymous with 'theft,' a term generally considered to be broader than 'commonlaw larceny.'12 To be sure, the discussion referred to 'larceny' but nothing was said about excluding other forms of 'theft.' The report stated the object of the Act in broad terms, primarily emphasizing the need for the exercise of federal powers.13 No mention is made of a purpose to distinguish between different forms of theft, as would be expected if the distinction had been intended.14

'Larceny' is also mentioned in Brooks v. United States, 1925, 267 U.S. 432, 45 S.Ct. 345, 346, 69 L.Ed. 699.15 This reference, however, carries no necessary implication excluding the taking of automobiles by embezzlement or false pretenses. Public and private rights are violated to a comparable degree whatever label is attached to the felonious taking. A typical example of common-law larceny is the taking of an unattended automobile. But an automobile is no less 'stolen' because it is rented, transported interstate, and sold without the permission of the owner (embezzlement).16 The same is true where an automobile is purchased with a worthless check, transported interstate, and sold (false pretenses).17 Professional thieves resort to innumerable forms of theft and Congress presumably sought to meet the need for federal action effectively rather than to leave loopholes for wholesale evasion.18

We conclude that the Act requires an interpretation of 'stolen' which does not limit it to situations which at common law would be considered larceny. The refinements of that crime are not related to the primary congressional purpose of eliminating the interstate traffic in unlawfully obtained motor vehicles. The Government's interpretation is neither unclear nor vague. 'Stolen' as used in 18 U.S.C. § 2312, 18 U.S.C.A. § 2312 includes all felonious takings of motor vehicles with intent to deprive the owner of the rights and benefits of ownership, regardless of whether or not the theft constitutes common-law larceny.

Reversed and remanded.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, whom Mr. Justice BLACK and Mr. Justice DOUGLAS join, dissenting.

If Congress desires to make cheating, in all its myriad varieties, a federal offense when employed to obtain an automobile that is then taken across a state line, it should express itself with less ambiguity...

To continue reading

Request your trial
333 cases
  • Spina v. Department of Homeland Sec.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • November 28, 2006
    ...laws into a federal statute, the meaning of [a] federal statute should not be dependent on state law." United States v. Turley, 352 U.S. 407, 411, 77 S.Ct. 397, 1 L.Ed.2d 430 (1957) (emphasis added); accord Dickerson v. New Banner Inst., Inc., 460 U.S. 103, 119, 103 S.Ct. 986, 74 L.Ed.2d 84......
  • United States v. Mobley
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)
    • August 21, 2020
    ...otherwise defining it, the general practice is to give that term its common-law meaning." (quoting United States v. Turley, 352 U.S. 407, 411, 77 S.Ct. 397, 1 L.Ed.2d 430 (1957) )). And we have stated what that meaning is: "[u]nder common law[,] ‘kidnap’ meant to take and carry away any per......
  • U.S. v. Bailey, 82-2280
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • May 11, 1984
    ...see Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 263, 72 S.Ct. 240, 249-50, 96 L.Ed. 288 (1952); United States v. Turley, 352 U.S. 407, 411, 77 S.Ct. 397, 399, 1 L.Ed.2d 430 (1957). In Morissette the court analyzed the legislative background of Sec. 641 and The history of Sec. 641 demonstrate......
  • Astoria Federal Savings and Loan Association v. Solimino
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • June 10, 1991
    ...adjudicatory principles. See Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 103 S.Ct. 1108, 75 L.Ed.2d 96 (1983); United States v. Turley, 352 U.S. 407, 411, 77 S.Ct. 397, 399, 1 L.Ed.2d 430 (1957). Thus, where a common-law principle is well established, as are the rules of preclusion, see, e.g., Parklane......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
3 books & journal articles
  • Brief for the petitioners: Gonzales v. State of Oregon *.
    • United States
    • Issues in Law & Medicine Vol. 21 No. 1, June 2005
    • June 22, 2005
    ..."is a question of federal law" and does not differ from State to State based on differences in state law); United States v Turley, 352 U.S. 407 (1957) (same for the word "stolen" in the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, 18 U.S.C. 2312); United States v. Pelzer, 312 U.S. 399 (1941) (same for......
    • United States
    • University of Pennsylvania Law Review Vol. 171 No. 2, January 2023
    • January 1, 2023
    ...without otherwise defining it, the general practice is to give that term its common-law meaning." (quoting United States v. Turley, 352 U.S. 407,411 (1957))). This confusion is reflected in the lower courts' approaches to the ordinary meaning presumption. For example, one court chose the or......
  • The Duryodhana dilemma: United States v. A 10th Century Cambodian Sandstone Sculpture and a proposed code of ethics-based response to repatriation requests for auction houses.
    • United States
    • University of Pennsylvania Law Review Vol. 163 No. 1, December - December 2014
    • December 1, 2014
    ...See Urice, supra note 78, at 133 (discussing the passage of the Dyer Act and the origins of the NSPA). (115) See United States v. Turley, 352 U.S. 407, 413-14 (1957) ("The automobile was uniquely suited to felonious taking.... It was a valuable, salable article which itself supplied the mea......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT