Nye Nissen v. United States/Dissent Frankfurter

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United States Supreme Court

336 U.S. 613

Nye Nissen  v.  United States

 Argued: March 3, 1949. --- Decided: April 18, 1949

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, dissenting.

Scarcely more than a recital of the history of these proceedings will expose the reasons why I cannot agree with the Court.

Moncharsh, with the other defendants, was indicted on seven counts. The first count charged conspiracy to defraud the United States. The other six counts charged the presentation of false invoices to the War Shipping Administration. The trial court correctly instructed the jury as to the findings necessary to support a conviction of guilty on the conspiracy count; it also correctly defined what is necessary to conclude that the defendant had aided and abetted commission of the substantive crimes charged in the remaining counts. On April 6, 1946, the jury found Moncharsh guilty as charged on all counts. He appealed, challenging, inter alia, the sufficiency of the evidence as to each.

To sustain on appeal he conviction for the substantive crimes, the Government chose not to insist upon the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain a finding by the jury that Moncharsh had aided and abetted the commission of the substantive offenses. It urged instead the applicability of the decision of this Court in Pinkerton v. United States, 328 U.S. 640, 66 S.Ct. 1180, 90 L.Ed. 1489, decided June 10, 1946. The Court of Appeals, regarding that case as controlling, was eloquently silent as to the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain a finding of aiding and abetting.

This Court now finds that the theory of the Pinkerton case cannot support the conviction. I agree that it cannot. The charge to the jury in that case made explicit that in order to supply the lack of direct evidence of participation in the substantive offenses, the jury could regard their finding, if they made one, that a conspiracy existed as sufficient to support a conviction on those counts, but it could do so only 'provided the acts referred to in the substantive counts were acts in furtherance of the unlawful conspiracy * * *.' 328 U.S. 640, 645-646, 66 S.Ct. 1180, 1183, Note 6. Here also direct evidence was lacking, but there was no such charge, and so I join the Court in rejecting the applicability of the Pinkerton theory.

The Court thus recognizes that the Pinkerton doctrine is available only if (1) there is a connection between the conduct of the conspiracy and the commission of the substantive offenses, and (2) the jury has been instructed that evidence establishing guilt of conspiracy cannot be used as a basis for conviction upon the substantive counts unless it has found the necessary connection to exist. The importance of these requirements lies in this: only when a jury has been properly instructed as to the relevant standards to be applied to the evidence does a basis exist for determining whether evidence sufficient to support the verdict was presented to it. See Bollenbach v. United States, 326 U.S. 607, 613-615, 66 S.Ct. 402, 405-406, 90 L.Ed. 350. The relevant question is not was the evidence sufficient, but was it sufficient to fulfill the required standards.

If this were all, we should reverse even though the record contained evidence which would have supported a finding that the acts referred to in the substantive counts were acts in furtherance of the unlawful conspiracy. But there remains the possibility of affirming on the ground that the record nevertheless contains evidence sufficient to support conviction for the substantive counts upon the theory of aiding and abetting, since the trial court did submit the substantive counts to the jury on a legally proper exposition of that theory and the jury apparently found that the evidence fulfilled the standards established. But the defendant challenges the jury's right so to find; he insists that the evidence is insufficient to establish his responsibility as an aider and abettor. As the case came before the Court of Appeals it did not feel called upon to meet this challenge. This was evidently due to the fact that the Government had shifted its position-a shift doubtless reduced by the fact that the Pinkerton decision, rendered after the case went to the jury, offered a tempting short-cut by which to sustain the verdict.

It may well be that the record supports the jury's finding of guilt on the substantive counts. But that question can be answered only by facing petitioner's challenge to the insufficiency of the evidence. This challenge is hardly met by examining bits and pieces of the record or by reliance on atmospheric emanations of guilt. The whole record must be canvassed, and the state of this Court's business precludes such an undertaking. It is a task especially to be avoided in view of the provision of the Evarts Act of 1891, underlined by the Judiciary Act of 1925, making criminal appeals final in the Courts of Appeals, reserving to this Court to grant further review in those rare instances where a serious issue of law or a conflict between the Courts of Appeals presents an issue of true public importance. The question of evidentiary sufficiency here at issue exemplifies precisely those burdensome features which led Congress to free this Court from such a wasteful responsibility. The record comprises twelve volumes, including 4,630 pages. It is not conceivable that the case would have been brought here for the purpose of canvassing such a record. We should not now undertake the task merely because the need to do so is unexpectedly presented, nor do we contribute to sound judicial administration by adopting a conclusion, on a necessarily partial examination of the record, which the Court of Appeals itself, though it must have examined the record, refrained from adopting. [1] Our duty is not to sustain merely on the basis of a general sense that crime has been committed; our duty is to sustain only if the applicable procedural requirements have been satisfied. Now that the theory has been rejected which made it unnecessary for the Court of Appeals to pass on the sufficiency of the evidence to support the charge of aiding and abetting, we should remand the case so that it may do so. Bates v. United States, 323 U.S. 15, 65 S.Ct. 15, 89 L.Ed. 13.

Plainly the Court cannot undertake the task from which Congress has happily relieved it. By failing to do so, however, it leaves room for doubt whether it has regarded the conviction for conspiracy as the demning fact that establishes guilt of the substantive offenses. Granted that evidence tending to establish guilt of the conspiracy may also be relevant to establish association with the substantive crimes, it is wholly immaterial, in the absence of such an instruction as that given in the Pinkerton case, that the defendant has been found guilty of conspiracy. Yet the Court points to the 'evidence that he was the promoter of a long and persistent scheme to defraud,' and adds that 'those activities extended throughout the period when the substantive crimes were committed.' The former statement on its face is no more than a way of saying that he was convicted of a conspiracy to defraud, and surely the fact that this scheme was contemporaneous with the commission of unrelated crimes does not supply the lack of an instrument which would make guilt of participation in it available as proof of aiding and abetting those crimes.

The instruction given in the Pinkerton case was needed to inform the jury of the conditions under which they might use a finding that the defendants were guilty of conspiracy as circumstantial evid nce of guilt of the substantive offenses. An instruction as to aiding and abetting serves no such function, for it leaves wholly at large the bearing of the crime of conspiracy upon the substantive offenses. For the same reasons, therefore, that it cannot be assumed, in the absence of such an instruction as that given in the Pinkerton case, that the acts referred to in the substantive counts were acts in furtherance of the unlawful conspiracy, so it cannot be assumed that the acts constituting the conspiracy were found by the jury to be acts aiding and abetting the substantive offenses. Without more, the aiding and abetting instruction was sufficient only to entitle the jury to draw inferences supplying the lack of evidence of the defendant's direct participation in the substantive offenses from the circumstantial evidence offered to establish commission of those offenses. Lacking a Pinkerton instruction, the finding that a conspiracy existed cannot be used to fill out that circumstantial evidence.

I am left in doubt, therefore, whether in lieu of a charge to the jury the Court is fabricating a rule of law. The Court itself seems to draw the inference that the defendant, because of his position and connection with the conspiracy, must inevitably have been associated as an aider and abettor in the commission of the substantive crimes. For an appellate court to draw such an inference is to make it a rule of law that the same inference must be drawn in every similar case. It is to create, in other words, a presumption that whenever A has been found guilty of conspiring with B an C to bring X, Y and Z to pass, and A and B commit the substantive offenses L, M and N, during the life of this conspiracy, C is an aider and abettor with A and B in the commission of L, M and N.

Clarity as to the ground on which a criminal conviction is sustained is indispensable to Anglo-American notions of criminal justice; it is no less indispensable for the guidance of district courts in future prosecutions for conspiracy. Such prosecutions are appropriate to reach a combination united to accomplish defined criminal purposes; the concept of conspiracy is not an invitation to circumvent the safeguards in the prosecution of crime which are the special boast of our democratic society by making it a device to establish guilt, not on the basis of personal responsibility, but by association, and we should be at pains to forestall the implication that we have so extended it. My brother JACKSON has impressively shown the grave dangers of abuse to which conspiracy charges so readily lend themselves. Krulewitch v. United States, 336 U.S. 440, 69 S.Ct. 716. They are dangers which the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges has strikingly pointed out, and along before that judges who had observed these abuses in practice had warned against them.

'There seems to be an increasing tendency in recent years for public prosecutors to indict for conspiracies when crimes have been committed. A conspiracy to commit a crime may be a sufficiently serious offiense to be properly punished; but, when a crime has been actually committed by two or more persons, there is usually no proper reason why they should be indicted for the agreement to commit the crime, instead of for the crime itself. * * * Prosecutors seem to think that by this practice all statutes of limitations and many of the rules of evidence established for the protection of persons charged with crime can be disregarded. But there is no mysterious potency in the word 'conspiracy.' If a conspiracy to commit a crime has been carried out, and the crime committed, the crime, in my opinion, cannot be made something else by being called a conspiracy.' United States v. Kissel, C.C.S.D.N.Y., 173 F. 823, 828.

Neither can a conspiracy to commit on crime be made to establish another crime by resort to the doctrine of aiding and abetting.

As to other issues canvassed by the Court of Appeals, among them the admission f proof of similar crimes to show intent, I do not mean to imply agreement with its views. For the reasons I have stated, I believe that the judgment should be reversed and the case remanded to the Court of Appeals.

Mr. Justice JACKSON and Mr. Justice RUTLEDGE join in this opinion.


^1  The following excerpts from the opinion of the Court of Appeals make clear how firmly it placed its decision upon the Pinkerton doctrine rather than upon a determination of the sufficiency of the evidence.

'* * * Here the case was submitted to the jury with an instruction under 18 U.S.C.A. § 550 that 'one who aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces, or procures the commission of an act is as responsible for that act as if he committed it directly.' It is the gist of appellant's (sic) contention in this respect that unless there is substantial evidence to support the verdict under the instruction which were given, the verdict cannot be sustained on the ground that the evidence was sufficient under a theory as to which the jury was uninstructed.

'No authority is cited in support of the point so raised and our search fails to reveal any federal case in which it has been expressly considered. * * *

'Whatever the answer to this problem may be, we are of the opinion that the verdict of the jury on the substantive counts did not disregard or go beyond the scope of the instructions given. Appellants' contention to the contrary is answered by the Pinkerton case itself.

'So long as the conspiracy existed, the members acted for each other in carrying it forward. The criminal intent to commit substantive offenses in furtherance of the unlawful project was established by the formation of the conspiracy.' 168 F.2d at page 854.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).