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United States Supreme Court

U S v. DAVIS, (1913)

No. 395

Argued: October 17, 1913    Decided: December 1, 1913

Assistant Attorney General Knaebel for plaintiff in error. [231 U.S. 183, 184]   Messrs. Thomas M. Seawell and Oscar T. Hamlin for defendants in error.

[231 U.S. 183, 186]  

Mr. Chief Justice White delivered the opinion of the court:

The indictment charged the defendants under Penal Code, 37 (Rev. Stat. 5440, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 3676), with a conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States; that is, to violate 28 and 29 of the Penal Code. These sections, leaying

Act March 4, 1909, c. 321, 35 Stat. 1094 (U. S. Comp. St. Supp. 1911, p. 1597) ceipt, or other writing for the purpose of obtaining or receiving, or of enabling any other person, either directly or indirectly, to obtain or receive from the United States, or any of their officers or agents, any sum of money;

or who utters or publishes as true, or causes to be uttered or published as true, any such false, forged, altered, or counterfeited deed, power of attorney, order, certificate, receipt, or other writing with intent to defraud the United States, knowing the same to be false, altered, forged, or counterfeited;

or who transmits to, or presents at, or causes or procures to be transmitted to or presented at any office or officer of the government of the United States, any deed, power of attorney, order, certificate, receipt, or other writing in support of or in relation to any account or claim with intent to defraud the United States, knowing the same to be false, altered, forged, or counterfeited, shall be imprisoned at hard labor for a period of not less than one year nor more than ten years; or shall be imprisoned not more than five years, and fined not more than one thousand dollars. [231 U.S. 183, 187]   aside additions, irrelevant to this case, are reproductions of 5421 and 5479, Revised Statutes (U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, pp. 3667, 3696), in force in 1909 when the acts charged were committed. All the overt acts concerned the making or use of false affidavits and documents, in support of a fraudulent claim for land under Rev. Stat. 2304 and 2307 (U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, pp. 1413, 1417), giving honorably discharged soldiers of the Civil War the right to make an additional entry under the circumstances stated in the statutes, and the privilege also conferred upon the widow of such honorably discharged soldier to make a claim for land as therein provided. In passing on demurrers, the court treating all the counts as relating solely to the making and use of documents which were merely false and fraudulent, but not forged, and construing 5421 and 5479, Rev. Stat . (U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, pp. 3667, 3696), and Penal Code, 28 and 29, as embracing only documents which were forged and counterfeited, held that none of the counts charged acts embraced by the provisions in question, and therefore the indictment was quashed because it stated no offense against the United States. On this direct appeal we assume the correctness of the meaning affixed to the indictment by the court below, and come only to determine whether the statute was correctly construed. This duty is narrowed by a concession made in argument by the government to the effect that the construction given by the court to the statute was correct except as to the last paragraph of 5421, and that even if, as to that paragraph, it be held that the court below was wrong, and that the terms of the paragraph include affidavits, documents, etc., which were merely fraudulent, and not forged, only the fourth count would in that contingency be within the section. This consequently confines the issue to a consideration of the third paragraph of the section. For convenience of reference the entire section is in the margin.

Sec. 5421. Every person who falsely makes, alters, forges, or counterfeits, or causes or procures to be falsely made, altered, forged, or counterfeited, or willingly aids or assists in the false making, altering, forging, or counterfeiting, any deed, power of attorney, order, certificate, * [231 U.S. 183, 188]   Coming to the text of the third paragraph, we think it is at once apparent that its provisions are so comprehensive as to prevent us from holding that they include only documents which are forged or counterfeited, and hence exclude all other documents, however fraudulent they may be. The all-embracing words 'any deed, power of attorney, order, certificate, receipt, or other writing in support of or in relation to any account or claim with intent to defraud the United States, knowing the same to be false, altered, forged, or counterfeited,' leave room for no other conclusion. The context of the section reinforces this view, since the contrast between the narrow scope of the first two paragraphs and the enlarged grasp of the third shows the legislative intent, after fully providing in the first two paragraphs for forged and counterfeited documents, instruments, etc., to reach by the provisions of the third paragraph, any and all fraudulent documents, whether forged or not forged, and thus efficiently to deter [231 U.S. 183, 189]   from committing the wrong which it was the purpose of the section to prohibit. It is not, however, necessary to fix the true meaning of the provision by a resort, as an original question, to its text, since its significance has been authoritatively determined contrary to the construction adopted by the court below. The section represents the 1st section of the act of March 3, 1823, 3 Stat. at L. 771, chap. 38, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 3667, the title of which, 'An Act for the Punishment of Frauds Committed on the Government of the United States,' manifests the purpose which Congress had in mind in enacting it. As long ago as 1850, in United States v. Staats, 8 How. 41, 12 L. ed. 979, the court was called upon to determine whether an indictment charging the transmission of a false (but not forged) affidavit touching a claim for pension was sustainable under the third clause of the section. The court fully analyzed the statute, and while conceding that other clauses of the act dealt with forged instruments in a technical sense, concluded that the case was within both the letter and the spirit of the act, and therefore that the acts charged in the indictment constituted an offense within the provisions of the law. When, then, the question before us is determined in the light of the text of the third paragraph and the context of the section, especially as elucidated by the ruling in the Staats Case, we think it clearly results that the court below was wrong in the construction which it gave the statute, and therefore its judgment must be reversed. In saying this we do not overlook the fact that in the argument for the defendant in error it is insisted that even although it be found that the construction which the court below gave was an erroneous one, nevertheless its judgment should be affirmed because from other points of view, the statute, if rightly construed, would exclude the possibility of holding that the facts charged in the indictment were within its terms. But without going into detail on this subject, we content ourselves with saying that, in our opinion, all the propositions [231 U.S. 183, 190]   relied upon to sustain this result are so obviously unsound, or so plainly concern the construction of the indictment, as not to call for particular notice.


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