Norton v. U.S.

Norton

While intention to defraud and deceive are crucial to a lawful conviction, when the evidence shows there was no plausible theory upon which to establish a victim the courts simply cannot pass judgment, as was shown in this case between the alleged lover of a well-known Hollywood film star and those bent on convicting her.

Sometime in 1937 the appellant was indicted before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California on charges of mail fraud as per 18 U.S.C.A. § 338, which reads in relevant part that:

“Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises….places in any post office or authorized depository for mail matter, any matter or thing whatever to be sent or delivered by the Postal Service….shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”

While the charge itself was reliant upon the fact that the appellant had organised and attempted to effectuate a letter-based scheme whereby she claimed to have given birth to a daughter in years following a romantic liaison with actor Clark Gable in England some fifteen years prior to the hearing, and so following her subsequent conviction, she appealed against the judgment on grounds that the allegations were in fact, false.

Heard in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the court quickly established that although the letter sent was one containing very personal statements and terms of endearment toward the actor, there was no historical evidence that the intended victim had even been in the United Kingdom at the time alleged, and so in the first instance the court referred to Donnelly v. U.S. in which the U.S. Supreme Court had held that:

“[O]ne may not be punished for crime against the United States unless the facts shown plainly and unmistakably constitute an offense within the meaning of an act of Congress.”

Donnelly v. U.S.

While also noting that in Fasulo v. U.S. the Court had again held that:

There are no constructive offenses; and, before one can be punished, it must be shown that his case is plainly within the statute.”

Fasulo v. U.S.

And so on this occasion the court noted that although the allegations suggested a purposeful attempt to defraud and thereby obtain money from the actor, the appellant was cognisant of the futility of such a plan when at the time of writing the letter, she knew that neither one of them had physically met, never mind engaged in any form of relationship, and so with no means upon which to properly convict, the court reversed the previous judgment in full, while reminding the litigants that:

“There can be no intent to deceive where it is known to the party making the representations that no deception can result.” 

U.S. v. Peoni

U.S. v. Peoni

The limitations and inclusions of conspiracy have something of a chequered past, and so on this occasion a defendant known and proven to have sold forged dollar bills was charged with exerting influence over transactions that were not only beyond his actual control, but were also separated by time, space and possible knowledge, thus the job of the court was to establish where the proximate lines of culpability lay.

Sometime prior to 1938 the appellant was charged and convicted in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York for possession of, and conspiracy to possess, counterfeit U.S. currency, whereupon he challenged the judgment in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Here the court noted that in the chain of events prior to his conviction, the appellant had indeed possessed counterfeit money, but had since sold it on to a second party, who then in turn sold it to a third party within the same borough albeit unknown to the appellant.

First referring to 18 U.S.C.A. § 550, the court noted how it read that:

“Whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal.”

Which translated that had it been shown that the appellant was instrumental to the second transaction, he was rightfully convicted, after which the court turned to Anstess v. U.S., in which the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals had held that:

“One who, with full knowledge of the purpose with which contraband goods are to be used, furnishes those goods to another to so use them, actively participates in the scheme or plan to so use them.”

Anstess v. U.S.

However the court also noted how in Graves v. Johnson the Massachusetts Supreme Court had held that:

“[A] sale otherwise lawful is not connected with subsequent unlawful conduct by the mere fact that the seller correctly divines the buyer’s unlawful intent, closely enough to make the sale unlawful.”

Graves v. Johnson

And so the court reasoned that regardless of the illegality of the appellants initial possession, it was contrary to sound law that he should be held to account as the principle conspirator in a sequence of events that occurred after the fact of his selling the notes on, thus the conviction was quashed in its entirety, while the court reminded the attending parties that:

“Nobody is liable in conspiracy except for the fair import of the concerted purpose or agreement as he understands it; if later comers change that, he is not liable for the change; his liability is limited to the common purposes while he remains in it.”

Shevlin-Carpenter Co. v. State of Minn.

Shevlin

The constitutionality of statute drafted and designed to preserve the interests of a State, coupled with the presumption that such laws are irrelevant to the needs of commerce, provide the basis of a case where those later prosecuted are left arguing that word of mouth is sufficient grounds upon which to acquire property.

Having operated as a timber merchant under State licence, the plaintiff in error corporation found themselves in need of a second licence extension following the recent expiration of their previous reissue, and so instead of applying through the proper channels, chose to rely upon verbal declarations of State officials as to their ability to continue removing trees from government land.

For clarity at the time of the offence, § 7 of the Laws of Minnesota 1895 stated that:

“If any person, firm or corporation, without a valid and existing permit therefor, cuts or employs, or induces any other person, firm or corporation to cut, or assist in cutting any timber of whatsoever description, on state lands, or removes or carries away or employs, or induces or assists any other person, firm or corporation to remove or carry away any such timber, or other property, he shall be liable to the state in treble damages, if such trespass is adjudged to have been willful; but double damages only in case the trespass is adjudged to have been casual and involuntary….”

And so when the plaintiff in error’s activities were discovered, the defendant in error brought charges in the District Court of St. Louis County on grounds of wilful trespass, thus claiming treble damages as prescribed.

Here the court found for the defendant in error and awarded damages of around $44,000, whereupon the plaintiff in error challenged the judgment in the Minnesota Supreme Court, who upheld the judgment, while holding that:

“The Legislature may declare that a willful trespass upon the lands of another shall constitute a criminal offense and fix the limits of punishment therefor, either by fine or imprisonment, or by compensating the injured party in damages to be recovered in a civil action, or by both, as its judgment may dictate.”

After which the plaintiff in error appealed on grounds that it had acted in good faith and reliance upon the statements made by those with apparent authority, while in response the court referred to State v. Shevlin-Carpenter Co., in which it had earlier held that:

“Where the defendant is a willful trespasser, the measure of damages is the full value of the property at the time and place of demand; but, if he is only an unintentional or mistaken trespasser,-that is, where he honestly and reasonably believed that he had a legal right to take the property,-then the measure of damages is the value of the property at the time and place and in the condition it was taken.”

State v. Shevlin-Carpenter

Before partially reversing their previous judgment and remanding the matter back in keeping with a significant reduction in damages, thus the plaintiff in error challenged the decision under writ of error in the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that the statue was violative of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when denying due process, and that as such, no damages were due.

Having reexamined the facts and constitutional argument, along with the right to protect State property through appropriate statute, the Court reasoned that at no point was the questioned legislation hidden from view, nor remotely difficult to understand, while also noting that at no point in history had trespass ever been considered a harmless act.

In closing the Court also noted that despite the harshness of its construction, the State had proscribed the offence within constitutional bounds, and were therefore sound in their enforcement, after which it upheld the previous judgment in full, while holding that:

“[I]nnocence cannot be asserted of an action which violates existing law, and ignorance of the law will not excuse.”

Lear v. State

Lear v. State

Theft without violence or fear of violence upon the victim cannot constitute robbery, as was demonstrated in this simple case of taking without a vendor’s consent in 1931.

Having entered the store of a Buckeye resident at the point of their opening it, the appellant took the opportunity to make off with a bag containing $33 while the shopkeeper was attending another task nearby, after which he was later arrested and confessed to stealing the money.

Indicted in the Superior Court of Maricopa County, the appellant was then charged and convicted of robbery under § 4602 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, which read that:

“Robbery is the felonious taking of personal property in the possession of another, from his person or immediate presence and against his will, accomplished by means of force or fear. The fear may be either of an unlawful injury to the person or property of the person robbed, or of a relative or member of his family; or of an immediate and unlawful injury to the person or property of any one in the company of the person robbed at the time of the robbery.”

However the appellant challenged the judgment in the Arizona Supreme Court on grounds that there was insufficient evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that he had subjected the vendor to any form of physical struggle, or that he had even uttered a single word to him during the act, whereupon the court sought clarification on the definition of robbery, and so turned to the English case of R. v Thomas Gnosil, in which the Court of Assizes had held that:

“[T]he force used must be either before, or at the time of the taking, and must be of such a nature as to shew that it was intended to overpower the party robbed, and prevent his resisting, and not merely to get possession of the property stolen.”

R v Thomas Gnosil

And to State v. Parsons, where the Washington Supreme Court had also held that:

“[I]t is not robbery to merely snatch from the hand or person of another, or to surreptitiously take from another’s pocket, money or some other thing of value, as such taking lacks the element of force, or putting in fear, one or the other of which being essential to constitute the crime of burglary.”

State v. Parsons

While the court further noted that § 649a of Grigsby’s Criminal Law stated that:

“No sudden taking unawares from the person, even done with force, as by snatching a thing from one’s hand, or out of his pocket, is sufficient to constitute robbery.”

Therefore the court held with considerable certainty that although the vendor had been cause distress as a result of his pecuniary loss, the appellant had on this occasion, been deft enough to avoid confrontation, and so the court reversed the previous judgment and remanded the case back to the superior court while holding that:

“The mere taking of property in possession of another, from his person or immediate presence and against his will, is not robbery. Such taking must be accomplished by force or fear to constitute robbery.”

State v. Rhodes

State v. Rhodes

Drawing the line between judicial governance of the family unit, or in the very least of cases, domestic relationships, was a task discussed in a case dating back to 1868, in which a spouse was prone to seek reparation in the criminal courts when her husband struck her in a manner designed to enforce compliance at a time when women and children’s rights were quite literally unheard of.

Having suffered three blows of the defendant’s switch, which by law could be no wider than a man’s thumb, (hence the phrase ‘rule of thumb’), the defendant was indicted for assault and battery before the North Carolina Supreme Court, on grounds that his actions were unprovoked and therefore unlawful, and upon which the court was tasked with an examination of leading case precedent in order to ‘draw the line’ as to when they were entitled to probe further into such apparently trifle matters.

In the first instance, the court turned to State v. Hussey, in which the court had recently held that:

“[A] wife may be a witness against her husband for felonies perpetrated, or attempted to be perpetrated on her, and we would say for an assault and battery which inflicted or threatened a lasting injury or great bodily harm; but in all cases of a minor grade she is not.”

State v. Hussey

Before reviewing State v. Black, in which the court had more recently held that:

“A husband is responsible for the acts of his wife, and he is required to govern his household, and for that purpose the law permits him to use towards his wife such a degree of force as is necessary to control an unruly temper and make her behave herself; and unless some permanent injury be inflicted, or there be an excess of violence, or such a degree of cruelty as shows that it is inflicted to gratify his own bad passions, the law will not invade the domestic forum or go behind the curtain.”

State v. Black

While also choosing to venture further into the use of physical discipline not only upon wives, but children, both at home and in the school system, where the court gave weight to State v. Pendergrass, in which the court earlier held that:

“[T]eachers exceed the limits of their authority when they cause lasting mischief; but act within the limits of it, when they inflict temporary pain.”

State v. Pendergrass

And so with a brief review of existing legal opinion, much of which was in a state of conflict when it came to both the use of ‘correctional’ force, and the means with which it could be dispensed, the court insisted that without further evidence of argument to the contrary, they were reluctant, if not powerless, to delve beyond the facade of marital or educational affairs unless there was compelling evidence that the injuries complained of were to prove lasting and detrimental to either party’s health, thus the case was dismissed in full while the court rightly or wrongly held that:

“Every household has and must have, a government of its own, modelled to suit the temper, disposition and condition of its inmates.”

Lanzetta v. State of New Jersey

Lanzetta v. State of New Jersey

Although legislation is required to embrace a degree of flexibility so as to enable the interpretive role of the judiciary, there are sometimes instances where ambiguity becomes so manifest that the courts are forced to discount the validity of such statute when constitutional rights are impinged without redress, as was found in this case between innocent individuals and a seemingly overzealous State.

In the Court of Quarter Sessions of Cape May County, the named petitioner and his two acquaintances were indicted and charged with being gangsters under § 4 of the Revised Statutes of New Jersey 1937, which stated in part that:

“Any person not engaged in any lawful occupation, known to be a member of any gang consisting of two or more persons, who has been convicted at least three times of being a disorderly person or who has been convicted of any crime, in this or in any other State, is declared to be a gangster….”

And thereby sentenced to between five and ten years hard labour on grounds that the men had been previously convicted of criminal offences in Pennsylvania before entering the State, to which the men appealed in the New Jersey Supreme Court on grounds that their convictions were violative of the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Here, the court referred to State v. Bell, in which it had held that:

“[A] state may classify with reference to the evil to be prevented, and that if the class discriminated against is or reasonably might be considered to define those from whom the evil mainly is to be feared, it properly may be picked out.”

State v. Bell

And so upheld the previous judgment, while holding that in defence of the legislation:

“[T]he statute is not aimed at punishing convicted criminals because they are convicted criminals, but because, being such, they become members of a gang organized to plot and commit further crimes, and neglect or refuse to engage in any lawful occupation.”

Whereupon the men filed a writ of error to the Court of Errors and Appeals of New Jersey, who simply upheld the supreme court judgement in light of the more recent State v. Gaynor, in which it had held that:

“[T]his statutory provision does not predicate criminality upon bad repute alone or mere evil intent in an individual, not aggravated by association with others for a like common purpose. Nor is there lacking a certain, definite, and immutable standard of conduct, the nonobservance of which fixes guilt. It therefore satisfies the test of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution and the due process requirements of our State Constitution….”

State v. Gaynor

To which the petitioners appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court, who took the time to reexamine the constitutionality of the previous verdicts.

In the first instance the Court turned to Connally v. General Const. Co., in which it had held that:

“[T]he terms of a penal statute creating a new offense must be sufficiently explicit to inform those who are subject to it what conduct on their part will render them liable to its penalties is a well-recognized requirement, consonant alike with ordinary notions of fair play and the settled rules of law; and a statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application violates the first essential of due process of law.”

Connally v. General Const. Co.

Before explaining that had the statute instead stated:

“Any person not engaged in any lawful occupation, known to be a member of any gang consisting of two or more persons (meaning a company of persons acting together for some purpose, usually criminal, or a company of persons who go about together or who act in concert, mainly for criminal purposes), who has been convicted at least three times of being a disorderly person or who has been convicted of any crime in this or in any other State, is declared to be a gangster (meaning a member of a gang of roughs, hireling criminals, thieves, or the like).”

The court’s application would have remained well within the limits of the Due Process Clause, however that was clearly not the case here, and so the Court was left with no option other than to reverse the previous judgment in full, while  explaining to those present that:

“No one may be required at peril of life, liberty or property to speculate as to the meaning of penal statutes. All are entitled to be informed as to what the State commands or forbids.”

Jones v. U.S.

Jones v. U.S.

Duty of care for the purposes of a criminal conviction must always be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and so when two women are tried for the neglect and subsequent death of the younger of two siblings, the court is left wanting in the face of an appeal that exploits the absence of legal obligation and contractual structure, along with fresh evidence of a judicial error.

In 1957, a young single girl fell pregnant with a boy whose birth resulted in her asking that the appellant take the child and care for it in exchange for monthly payments, to which the appellant agreed, only for the same mother to fall pregnant again some months later with another boy, who on this occasion fell sick and was forced to remain hospitalised for a determinate period.

Upon his discharge, the mother and second child then lived with the appellant for a a number of weeks, before she left to return home with her parents, thereby leaving the appellant to raise and care for the two children unaided and now unpaid.

Following a number of doctor visits concerning bronchial infections and treatment for diarrhoea, it was mentioned by the physician that the younger child was to be taken to hospital to receive much needed medical care, however the appellant ignored the request and continued to care for the boys alone.

This arrangement continued uninterrupted until two utility debt collectors noticed the boys in a downstairs basement and reported their findings to the local police, who investigated the matter, only to find one of the children living in what could best be described a wire mesh chicken coup, while the youngest child was living in a bassinet, however both boys were found to covered in cockroaches and showing visible signs of malnutrition, at which point they were both removed and placed into urgent hospital care.

Unfortunately some thirty-four hours after his admission, the youngest of the children died from the effects of prolonged malnutrition, and so both women were indicted before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on charges of abuse, maltreatment and involuntary manslaughter, the latter of which only the appellant was found guilty and convicted accordingly.

Having challenged the judgment before the Columbia District Court of Appeals, the appellant argued that the jury had found insufficient evidence to support a finding of legal or even contractual duty of care when providing food and water to the deceased, whereupon the court referred to People v. Beardsley, in which the Michigan Supreme Court held that:

“[U]nder some circumstances the omission of a duty owed by one individual to another, where such omission results in the death of the one to whom the duty is owing, will make the other chargeable with manslaughter.”

People v. Beardlsey

However the caveat to this precedent was that it must be equally proven that a legal, contractual but not moral obligation underpinned the duties, and further that a failure to execute them would result in the immediate and direct cause of death and nothing less.

In addition to this, it was also argued that the trial court had failed to adequately instruct the jury to look for any evidence of a legal duty, and that while the jury had retired to deliberate a decision, the judge had communicated with the jury by way of a hand-written note, yet failed to notify the appellant’s counsel, thus the verdict was now automatically unsound, at which point the appeal court reversed the previous judgment and remanded the case back to the district court while holding that:

“Proper procedure requires that a jury be instructed in the courtroom in the presence of counsel and the defendant, and that counsel be given opportunity to except to the additional instruction.”

Hubbard v. Commonwealth

The willful if not reckless action of a drunken soldier lies central to a manslaughter charge that almost left the defendant facing imprisonment for something (i) he did not do and (ii) could not recall.

Having been temporarily released from military service during the tail end of WWII, the defendant was arrested for public drunkenness, and so too inebriated to stand trial, he was ordered by the county judge to spend time in jail, whereupon he became violently aggressive and refused to leave the court.

After falling to the ground, the defendant continued to resist the actions of the jailer, who after trying hard with others to get him up, left the room and collapsed of a fatal heart attack, upon which the attending doctors later announced that his death had resulted from acute dilatation of the heart brought on by sudden physical exercise and excitement arising from the scuffle.

Tried in the circuit court of Jackson County, the jury found the defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter  subject to a prison sentence of two years, upon which the defendant explained that he had no memory of the events and that the deceased was his friend.

Challenged before the Kentucky Court of Appeals, the court took steps to reevaluate the charge and determine whether the events were instead indicative of involuntary manslaughter, and so turning first to Hopkins v. Commonwealth, the court noted how it had held that:

“If one unlawfully wounds another, and thereby hastens or accelerates his death by reason of some disease with which he is afflicted, the wrongdoer is guilty of the crime thereby resulting.”

Hopkins v. Commonwealth

While in Commonwealth v. Couch it had also held that:

“Involuntary manslaughter is the killing of another in doing some unlawful act, but without intent to kill.”

Commonwealth v. Couch

However in Livingston v. Commonwealth, the court had also held that when a blow is struck upon an individual with a pre-existing and potentially fatal illness:

“The blow is neither the proximate cause of the death, nor is it, though made by extraneous circumstances to accelerate it, linked with it in the regular chain of causes and consequences. A new and wholly independent instrumentality is interposed in the shape of the disease; and in contemplation of law, the death stroke is inflicted by the hand of Providence, and not by the hand of violence.”

Livingston v. Commonwealth

Upon which the court noted that the defendant had not at any point, made actual physical contact with the deceased, a fact which was further compounded by the truth that the deceased had complained of ill-health that day, and yet chose to continue working in a familiar and frequently stressful environment, therefore the court abruptly reversed the previous judgment in full, while holding that:

“[T]o warrant a conviction of homicide the act of the accused must be the proximate cause of death….”

Hopkins v. Commonwealth

Murderous acts, or at the very least, assaults designed to cause significant harm, are nonetheless applicable to the death of a person, who at the time of the offence, was suffering from grave illness or an otherwise delicate constitution, as was found in this case.

Upon indictment before a Knox County grand jury in 1904, the appellant was charged with murder and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment, whereupon he argued the the judgment was unlawful in that the jury had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his actions were directly attributable to the victim’s death  at a time following the act.

By way of background, the appellant had chosen to leave his position as a labourer, whereupon his employer had pursued him out of anger, before verbally abusing the appellant in public before the two men settled their differences and went their separate ways.

Having met again in a convenience store, the now deceased employer again used profane and abusive language toward the appellant, whereupon the appellant stole a hand gun from the store clerk’s keeping and went after the deceased, later to shoot and wound him  on public highway.

Two months after the shooting the employer died not from the shooting itself, but as a result of an existing diagnosis of consumption (tuberculosis), a common disease at the time, however the jury found that the appellant deliberately and purposefully assassinated the employer, and that his actions exacerbated the illness and thereby accelerated his otherwise eventual death.

At the point of appeal, the Kentucky Court of Appeals first referred to p.129 of the Hand-Book of Criminal Law, in which W.M. L. Clark Jr. wrote: 

“The fact that the person killed was diseased and in ill health, or wounded by another, and was likely or sure to die when the blow was given, or that after the blow was given he neglected or refused to take proper care of himself, or submit to an operation by which he could have been cured, is no defense.”

Before further noting that on p.428 of A History of the Pleas of the Crown (Vol. I), Sir Matthew Hale stated that:

“If a man be sick of some such disease which possibly, by course of nature, would end his life in half a year, and another gives him a wound or hurt which hastens his end by irritating and provoking the disease to operate more violently or speedily, this hastening of his death sooner than it would have been is homicide or murder….”

And so despite claims of remoteness as to the actual cause of death, the court dismissed the appeal and upheld the previous judgment in full, while holding that:

“If one unlawfully wounds another, and thereby hastens or accelerates his death by reason of some disease with which he is afflicted, the wrongdoer is guilty of the crime thereby resulting.”

Coleman v. State

When an alleged robbery resulted in threatening behaviour, the defendant argued that absence of evidence to support the initial act reduced the charge to one of theft under Indiana State law.

Having stolen five rolls of camera film from a Muncie supermarket, the defendant was seen taking the items by a single witness, who after the defendant had left the store, indirectly notified the store manager, who then confronted the defendant outside on the pavement.

In response to his challenge, the defendant brandished a knife and threatened the manager, after which the manager stood down and retreated back inside the shop, only for the State police to arrest the defendant when he somewhat naively returned to the scene of the crime.

Convicted of robbery before a Delaware Circuit Court jury, the Court of Appeals of Indiana Second District reversed the judgment on grounds that § 35-42-5-1 of the Indiana Code defines robbery as present when:

“A person who knowingly or intentionally takes property from another person or from the presence of another person:

(1) By using or threatening the use of force on any person; or

(2) By putting any person in fear….”

And that in Eckelberry v. State, the Indiana Supreme Court had previously held that:

“The force necessary to constitute robbery must be employed before the property is stolen. If the stealing be first, and the force afterwards, the offense is not robbery, but stealing from the person.”

Eckelberry v. State

After which the case was heard again before the Indiana Supreme Court, who reviewed their position with regard to the defendant leaving the property after the threatening behaviour, further noting that in Paul v. State the court had ruled a store clerk as solely responsible for the contents stolen, and so a conviction of robbery could lawfully stand.

It also noted that in Eckelberry, the court had concluded that when the defendant injured their victim immediately after taking their property, the two events were merely equal parts of the same act, therefore the court reversed the appeal court decision and upheld the robbery charge in full.