Mr. George R. Sommer, of Newark, N.J., for petitioner, Tot. [319 U.S. 463, 464] Mr. Wendell Berge, Asst. Atty. Gen., for the United States.
Messrs. Jack N. Tucker and Morton A. Eden, both of Detroit, Mich., for respondent Delia.
Mr. Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.
These cases involve the construction and validity of 2(f) of the Federal Firearms Act,1 which is:
In No. 569, Tot, the petitioner, was convicted2 upon an indictment which charged that he, having been previously convicted of two crimes of violence, a burglary and an assault and battery, with intent to beat, wound, and ill-treat, 3 on or about September 20, 1938, at Newark, New Jersey, knowingly, unlawfully, and feloniously received a described firearm which 'had been shipped and transported in interstate commerce to the said City of Newark.' The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment. 4
The Government's evidence was that Tot had been convicted of assault and battery in 1925, and had pleaded non vult to a charge of burglary in 1932 in state courts, and that, on September 22, 1938, he was found in possession of a loaded automatic pistol. [319 U.S. 463, 465] After denial of a motion for a directed verdict, Tot took the stand and testified that he purchased the pistol in 1933 or 1934. He admitted the criminal record charged in the indictment and other convictions. His sister and his wife testified in corroboration of his evidence, but their testimony was shaken on cross-examination. In rebuttal the Government produced a representative of the manufacturer who testified that the pistol had been made in Connecticut in 1919 and shipped by the maker to Chicago, Illinois. At the close of the case petitioner renewed his motion for a directed verdict, which was denied.
In No. 636, Delia, the respondent, was convicted upon two counts. The first alleged that, on September 25, 1941, he was a person previously convicted of a crime of violence-robbery while armed5-and that he received and possessed a firearm, described in the indictment, 'which firearm had theretofore been ipped and transported in interstate commerce.' The second repeated the allegation of previous conviction and charged that, on September 25, 1941, he received and possessed certain cartridges which 'had been theretofore shipped and transported in interstate commerce.' The Government's proof was that Delia had been convicted of armed robbery and, on September 25, 1941, had in his possession a loaded revolver which had been manufactured in Massachusetts prior to 1920; that some of the cartridges in the pistol had been manufactured in Ohio and some in Germany, the former after 1934 and the latter at an unknown date. The respondent testified that he had, at about the time of his arrest, picked up the revolver when it was dropped by a person who attacked him, but there was testimony which tended to contradict [319 U.S. 463, 466] this defense. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction on each count. 6
Both courts below held that the offense created by the Act is confined to the receipt of firearms or ammunition as a part of interstate transportation and does not extend to the receipt, in an intrastate transaction, of such articles which, at some prior time, have been transported interstate. The Government agrees that this construction is correct. There remains for decision the question of the power of Congress to create the presumption which 2(f) declares, namely, that, from the prisoner's prior conviction of a crime of violence and his present possession of a firearm or ammunition, it shall be presumed (1) that the article was received by him in interstate or foreign commerce, and (2) that such receipt occurred subsequent to July 30, 1938, the effective date of the statute.
The Government argues that the presumption created by the statute meets the tests of due process heretofore laid down by this court. The defendants assert that it fails to meet them because there is no rational connection between the facts proved and the ultimate fact presumed, that the statute is more than a regulation of the order of proof based upon the relative accessibility of evidence to prosecution and defense, and casts an unfair and practically impossible burden of persuasion upon the defendant.
An indictment charges the defendant with action or failure to act contrary to the law's command. It does not constitute proof of the commission of the offense. Proof of some sort on the part of the prosecutor is requisite to a finding of guilt; it may consist of testimony of those who witnessed the defendant's conduct. Although the Government may be unable to produce testimony of eye [319 U.S. 463, 467] witnesses to the conduct on which guilt depends, this does not mean that it cannot produce proof sufficient to support a verdict. The jury is permitted to infer from one fact the existence of another essential to guilt, if reason and experience support the inference. In many circumstances courts hold that proof of the first fact furnishes a basis for inference of the existence of the second. 7
The rules of evidence, however, are established not alone by the courts but by the legislature. The Congress has power to prescribe what evidence is to be received in the courts of the United States. 8 The section under consideration is such legislation. But the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments set limits upon the power of Congress or that of a state legislature to make the proof of one fact or group of facts evidence of the existence of the ultimate fact on which guilt is predicated. The question is whether, in this instance, the Act transgresses those limits.
The Government seems to argue that there are two alternative tests of the validity of a presumption created by statute. The first is that there be a rational connection between the facts proved and the fact presumed; the second that of comparative convenience of producing evidence of the ultimate fact. We are of opinion that these are not independent tests but that the first is controlling and the second but a corollary. Under our decisions, a statutory presumption cannot be sustained if there be no rational connection between the fact proved and the ultimate fact presumed, if the inference of the one from proof of the other is arbitrary because of lack of connection [319 U.S. 463, 468] between the two in common experience. 9 This is not to say that a valid presumption may not be created upon a view of relation broader than that a jury might take in a specific case. 10 But where the inference is so strained as not to have a reasonable relation to the circumstances of life as we know them it is not competent for the legislature to create it as a rule governing the procedure of courts.
The Government seeks to support the presumption by a showing that, in most states, laws forbid the acquisition of firearms without a record of the transaction or require registration of ownership. From these circumstances it is argued that mere possession tends strongly to indicate that acquisition must have been in an interstate transaction. But we think the conclusion does not rationally follow. Aside from the fact that a number of states have no such laws, there is no presumption that a firearm must have been lawfully acquired or that it was not transferred interstate prior to the adoption of state regulation. Even less basis exists for the inference from mere possession that acquisition occurred subsequent to the effective date of the statute,-July 30, 1938. And, as no state laws or regulations are cited with respect to the acquisition of ammunition, there seems no reasonable ground for a presumption that its purchase or procurement was in interstate rather than in intrastate commerce. 11 It is not too much to say that the presumptions created by the law are violent, and inconsistent with any argument drawn from experience. [319 U.S. 463, 469] Nor can the fact that the defendant has the better means of information, standing alone, justify the creation of such a presumption. In every criminal case the defendant has at least an equal familiarity with the facts and in most a greater familiarity with them than the prosecution. It might, therefore, be argued that to place upon all defendants in criminal cases the burden of going forward with the evidence would be proper. But the argument proves too much. If it were sound, the legislature might validly command that the finding of an indictment, or mere proof of the identity of the accused, should create a presumption f the existence of all the facts essential to guilt. This is not permissible.