In the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, 18 U.S.C. 2312, which makes it a federal crime to transport in interstate or foreign commerce a motor vehicle "knowing the same to have been stolen," the word "stolen" is not limited to takings which amount to common-law larceny, but it includes all takings of motor vehicles with a criminal intent to deprive the owner of the rights and benefits of ownership. Pp. 408-417.
Roger D. Fisher argued the cause for the United States. On the brief were Solicitor General Rankin, Assistant Attorney General Olney and Beatrice Rosenberg.
Fenton L. Martin argued the cause and filed a brief for 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:
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 [352 U.S. 407, 409] 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 [352 U.S. 407, 410] to this Court under 18 U.S.C. 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 .
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 [352 U.S. 407, 411] 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, 318 U.S. 101, 104 (1943); United States v. Handler, 142 F.2d 351, 354 (C. A. 2d Cir. 1944).
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:
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 [352 U.S. 407, 414] 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 history Congress used the word "stolen" as synonymous with "theft," a term generally considered to be broader than "common-law 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 [352 U.S. 407, 415] distinguish between different forms of theft, as would be expected if the distinction had been intended. 14
[ Footnote 2 ] As amended, the information charged that -
[ Footnote 3 ] Carpenter v. United States, 113 F.2d 692 (C. A. 8th Cir. 1940); Abraham v. United States, 15 F.2d 911 (C. A. 8th Cir. 1926). The Abraham case arose in Oklahoma, where larceny was defined by statute in the narrow common-law sense, and the conviction was reversed because the taking did not meet that test. The Carpenter case arose in Minnesota, where the statutory definition of larceny included embezzlement and other types of fraudulent taking, and the conviction was affirmed.
[ Footnote 4 ] In this opinion felonious is used in the sense of having criminal intent rather than with reference to any distinction between felonies and misdemeanors.
[ Footnote 5 ] Murphy v. United States, 206 F.2d 571 (C. A. 5th Cir. 1953) (false pretenses); Ackerson v. United States, 185 F.2d 485 (C. A. 8th Cir. 1950) (false pretenses); Hite v. United States, 168 F.2d 973 (C. A. 10th Cir. 1948) (false pretenses). Cf. Hand v. United States, 227 F.2d 794 (C. A. 10th Cir. 1955) (larceny by bailee); and Stewart v. United States, 151 F.2d 386 (C. A. 8th Cir. 1945) (larceny by bailee). See also, United States v. Kratz, 97 F. Supp. 999 (D.C. Neb. 1951) (embezzlement); United States v. O'Carter, 91 F. Supp. 544 (D.C. S. D. Iowa 1949) (false pretenses); Ex parte Atkinson, 84 F. Supp. 300 (D.C. E. D. S. C. 1949) (false pretenses).
[ Footnote 6 ] Boone v. United States, 235 F.2d 939 (C. A. 4th Cir. 1956) (false pretenses); Smith v. United States, 233 F.2d 744 (C. A. 9th Cir. 1956) (embezzlement); Breece v. United States, 218 F.2d 819 (C. A. 6th Cir. 1954) (embezzlement); Wilson v. United States, 214 F.2d 313 (C. A. 6th Cir. 1954) (embezzlement); Collier v. United States, 190 F.2d 473 (C. A. 6th Cir. 1951) (embezzlement); Davilman v. United States, 180 F.2d 284 (C. A. 6th Cir. 1950) (embezzlement). And see United States v. Sicurella, 187 F.2d 533, 534 (C. A. 2d Cir. 1951) where the court said that "a narrow common law definition [of "stolen"] is not required under the Dyer Act."
Most of these cases adopted the definition of "stolen" given by Judge Shackelford Miller, Jr., in United States v. Adcock, 49 F. Supp. 351, 353 (D.C. W. D. Ky. 1943) (embezzlement):
[ Footnote 8 ] In defining "theft" Webster's New International Dictionary (2d ed. 1953) says: "Stealing and theft, esp. in popular use, are broader terms than larceny, and may include swindling as well as embezzlement."
[ Footnote 9 ] See, e. g., United States v. O'Connell, 165 F.2d 697, 698 (C. A. 2d Cir. 1948) ("steal" or "unlawfully take by any fraudulent device, scheme, or game" from dining car moving in interstate commerce); [352 U.S. 407, 413] United States v. De Normand, 149 F.2d 622, 624 (C. A. 2d Cir. 1945) (interstate transportation of goods "stolen, feloniously converted, or taken feloniously by fraud or with intent to steal or purloin"); United States v. Handler, 142 F.2d 351, 353 (C. A. 2d Cir. 1944) (same); Crabb v. Zerbst, 99 F.2d 562, 565 (C. A. 5th Cir. 1938) ("embezzle, steal, or purloin" property of the United States); United States v. Trosper, 127 F. 476, 477 (D.C. S. D. Cal. 1904) ("steal" from the mails); United States v. Jolly, 37 F. 108 (D.C. W. D. Tenn. 1888) ("steal" from the mails); United States v. Stone, 8 F. 232 (C. C. W. D. Tenn. 1881) ("plunders, steals, or destroys" goods belonging to a vessel in distress).
[ Footnote 10 ] Hall, Theft, Law and Society (2d ed. 1952), 235, and see 233-240; 58 Cong. Rec. 5470-5478.
[ Footnote 11 ] In 1895, there were four automobiles in the United States and, in 1910, about 500,000. Hall, op. cit. 234 et seq. In 1919, there were nearly 6,500,000. H. R. Rep. No. 312, 66th Cong., 1st Sess. 2-3. Today, there are over 65,000,000 motor vehicle registrations. World Almanac (1957) 699.
[ Footnote 12 ] See n. 8, supra.
[ Footnote 13 ] The report began and ended as follows:
[ Footnote 14 ] In 1948, following the decision in Hite v. United States, 168 F.2d 973 (C. A. 10th Cir.), holding that the word "stolen" was restricted to common-law larceny, the Department of Justice proposed various clarifying amendments to 18 U.S.C. 2312. These amendments sought to clarify the application of the Act by adding the words "embezzled, feloniously converted, or taken feloniously by fraud," or similar language. Such an amendment was adopted by one House of Congress in each of the 81st, 83d and 84th Congresses, but in each case it failed to come to a vote in the other House. Appellee seeks support for his interpretation of "stolen" in the failure of Congress to enact these proposals, but we think this failure is entitled to no significance. The proposed amendments are shown by their respective Committee Reports to be clarifying amendments. They included other proposed changes and were never voted down. See S. 1483, 81st Cong., 1st Sess. (S. Rep. No. 358); S. 675, 83d Cong., 2d Sess. (S. Rep. No. 2364); and H. R. 3702, 84th Cong., 1st Sess (H. R. Rep. No. 919).
[ Footnote 15 ] In that case Chief Justice Taft, after referring to the purpose of Congress in passing the Act "to devise some method for defeating the success of these widely spread schemes of larceny," did not further discuss larceny but said:
[ Footnote 16 ] See Smith v. United States, 233 F.2d 744 (C. A. 9th Cir. 1956); Hand v. United States, 227 F.2d 794 (C. A. 10th Cir. 1955); Stewart v. United States, 151 F.2d 386 (C. A. 8th Cir. 1945); Clark and Marshall, Crimes (5th ed. 1952), 428-451, 482-503; Annotation, Distinction between larceny and embezzlement, 146 A. L. R. 532.
A car rental situation was involved in Davilman v. United States, 180 F.2d 284 (C. A. 6th Cir. 1950). Kindred situations were involved in Breece v. United States, 218 F.2d 819 (C. A. 6th Cir. 1954); Wilson v. United States, 214 F.2d 313 (C. A. 6th Cir. 1954); and Collier v. United States, 190 F.2d 473 (C. A. 6th Cir. 1951). Another embezzlement situation, the use of an employee to obtain automobiles feloniously, was involved in United States v. Bucur, 194 F.2d 297 (C. A. 7th Cir. 1952).
[ Footnote 17 ] See Boone v. United States, 235 F.2d 939 (C. A. 4th Cir. 1956); Murphy v. United States, 206 F.2d 571 (C. A. 5th Cir. 1953); Ackerson v. United States, 185 F.2d 485 (C. A. 8th Cir. 1950); Hite v. United States, 168 F.2d 973 (C. A. 10th Cir. 1948). In each of these cases the defendant obtained possession of a car by passing a bad check, falsely representing that it would be paid.
[ Footnote 18 ] For examples of other automobile theft devices, see Hall, Theft, Law and Society (2d ed. 1952), 252-253. For a history of common law larceny and the development of other theft crimes, see id., at 1-109, and Hall and Glueck, Criminal Law and Enforcement (1951), 165-171.
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 than by language that leads three Courts of Appeals to decide that it has not said so and three that it has. If "stealing" (describing a thing as "stolen") be not a term of art, it must be deemed a colloquial, everyday term. As such, it would hardly be used, even loosely, by the man in the street to cover "cheating." Legislative drafting is dependent on treacherous words to convey, as often as not, complicated ideas, and courts should not be pedantically exacting in construing [352 U.S. 407, 418] legislation. But to sweep into the jurisdiction of the federal courts the transportation of cars obtained not only by theft but also by trickery does not present a problem so complicated that the Court should search for hints to find a command. When Congress has wanted to deal with many different ways of despoiling another of his property and not merely with larceny, it has found it easy enough to do so, as a number of federal enactments attest. See, e. g., 18 U.S.C. 641, 655, 659, 1707. No doubt, penal legislation should not be artificially restricted so as to allow escape for those for whom it was with fair intendment designed. But the principle of lenity which should guide construction of criminal statutes, Bell v. United States, 349 U.S. 81, 83 -84, precludes extending the term "stolen" to include every form of dishonest acquisition. This conclusion is encouraged not only by the general consideration governing the construction of penal laws; it also has regard for not bringing to the federal courts a mass of minor offenses that are local in origin until Congress expresses, if not an explicit, at least an unequivocal, desire to do so.
I would affirm the judgment. [352 U.S. 407, 419]