Appellee was charged by information with shipping sulfuric and hydrofluosilicic acids in interstate commerce and that it "did knowingly fail to show on the shipping papers the required classification of said property, to wit, Corrosive Liquid, in violation of 49 C. F. R. 173.437," issued pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 834 (a). Section 834 (f) provides that whoever "knowingly violates any such regulation" shall be fined and imprisoned. The District Court dismissed the information, holding that it did not charge a "knowing violation" of the regulation. Held: The statute does not signal an exception to the general rule that ignorance of the law is no excuse. The word "knowingly" in the statute pertains to knowledge of the facts, and where, as here, dangerous products are involved, the probability of regulation is so great that anyone who is aware that he is in possession of or dealing with them must be presumed to be aware of the regulation. Pp. 560-565.
DOUGLAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C. J., and BLACK, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which HARLAN and BRENNAN, JJ., joined, post, p. 565.
John F. Dienelt argued the cause for the United States pro hac vice. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Griswold, Assistant Attorney General Wilson, and Beatrice Rosenberg.
Harold E. Spencer argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief was Charles J. McCarthy. [402 U.S. 558, 559]
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
The information charged that appellee shipped sulfuric acid and hydrofluosilicic acid in interstate commerce and "did knowingly fail to show on the shipping papers the required classification of said property, to wit, Corrosive Liquid, in violation of 49 C. F. R. 173.427."
Title 18 U.S.C. 834 (a) gives the Interstate Commerce Commission power to "formulate regulations for the safe transportation" of "corrosive liquids" and 18 U.S.C. 834 (f) states that whoever "knowingly violates any such regulation" shall be fined or imprisoned.
Pursuant to the power granted by 834 (a) the regulatory agency 1 promulgated the regulation already cited which reads in part:
The United States filed a notice of appeal to the Court of Appeals, 18 U.S.C. 3731, and in reliance on that section later moved to certify the case to this Court which [402 U.S. 558, 560] the Court of Appeals did; and we noted probable jurisdiction, 400 U.S. 990 .
Here as in United States v. Freed, 401 U.S. 601 , which dealt with the possession of hand grenades, strict or absolute liability is not imposed; knowledge of the shipment of the dangerous materials is required. The sole and narrow question is whether "knowledge" of the regulation is also required. It is in that narrow zone that the issue of "mens rea" is raised; and appellee bears down hard on the provision in 18 U.S.C. 834 (f) that whoever "knowingly violates any such regulation" shall be fined, etc.
Boyce Motor Lines, Inc. v. United States, supra, on which the District Court relied, is not dispositive of the issue. It involved a regulation governing transporting explosives, inflammable liquids, and the like and required drivers to "avoid, so far as practicable, and, where feasible, by prearrangement of routes, driving into or through congested thoroughfares, places where crowds are assembled, street car tracks, tunnels, viaducts, and dangerous crossings." The statute punished whoever "knowingly" violated the regulation. Id., at 339. The issue of "mens rea" was not raised below, the sole question turning on whether the standard of guilt was unconstitutionally vague. Id., at 340. In holding the statute was not void for vagueness we said:
The failure to change the language in 834 in 1960 should not lead to a contrary conclusion. The Senate approved an amendment deleting "knowingly" and substituting therefor the language "being aware that the Interstate Commerce Commission has formulated regulations for the safe transportation of explosives and other dangerous articles." 2 But the House refused to agree. As the House Committee stated, its version would "retain the present law by providing that a person must `knowingly' violate the regulations." 3
The House Committee noted there was a "judicial pronouncement as to the standards of conduct that make a violation a `knowing' violation." 4 In St. Johnsbury Trucking Co. v. United States, 220 F.2d 393, 397, Chief Judge Magruder had concluded that knowledge of the regulations was necessary. But whether the House Committee was referring to Boyce Motor Lines or the opinion of Chief Judge Magruder is not clear since both views of the section were before Congress. 5 It is clear that [402 U.S. 558, 563] strict liability was not intended. The Senate Committee felt it would be too stringent and thus rejected the position of the Interstate Commerce Commission. 6 But despite protestations of avoiding strict liability the Senate version was very likely to result in strict liability because knowledge of the facts would have been unnecessary and anyone involved in the business of shipping dangerous materials would very likely know of the regulations involved. Thus in rejecting the Senate version the House was rejecting strict liability. 7 But it is too much to conclude that in rejecting strict liability the House was also carving out an exception to the general rule that ignorance of the law is no excuse.
The principle that ignorance of the law is no defense applies whether the law be a statute or a duly promulgated and published regulation. In the context of these proposed 1960 amendments we decline to attribute to Congress the inaccurate view that that Act requires proof of knowledge of the law, as well as the facts, and that it intended to endorse that interpretation by retaining the word "knowingly." We conclude that the meager legislative history of the 1960 amendments makes unwarranted the conclusion that Congress abandoned the general rule and required knowledge of both the facts and the pertinent law before a criminal conviction could be sustained under this Act.
So far as possession, say, of sulfuric acid is concerned the requirement of "mens rea" has been made a requirement of the Act as evidenced by the use of the word "knowingly." A person thinking in good faith that he was shipping distilled water when in fact he was shipping [402 U.S. 558, 564] some dangerous acid would not be covered. As stated in Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 250 :
[ Footnote 2 ] See H. R. Rep. No. 1975, 86th Cong., 2d Sess., 10-11.
[ Footnote 3 ] Id., at 2.
[ Footnote 4 ] Ibid.
[ Footnote 5 ] See the HEW Staff Memorandum, id., at 16-19.
[ Footnote 6 ] S. Rep. No. 901, 86th Cong., 1st Sess., 3.
[ Footnote 7 ] The Senate language might "well create an almost absolute liability for violation." H. R. Rep. No. 1975, supra, at 2.
MR. JUSTICE STEWART, with whom MR. JUSTICE HARLAN and MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN join, dissenting.
This case stirs large questions - questions that go to the moral foundations of the criminal law. Whether postulated as a problem of "mens rea," of "willfulness," of "criminal responsibility," or of "scienter," the infliction of criminal punishment upon the unaware has long troubled the fair administration of justice. See, e. g., Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246 , Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 225 ; Scales v. United States, 367 U.S. 203 . Cf. Durham v. United States, 214 F.2d 862. But there is no occasion here for involvement with this root problem of criminal jurisprudence, for it is evident to me that Congress made punishable only knowing violations of the regulation in question. That is what the law quite clearly says, what the federal courts have held, and what the legislative history confirms.
The statutory language is hardly complex. Section 834 (a) of Title 18, U.S.C., gives the regulatory agency power to "formulate regulations for the safe transportation" of, among other things, "corrosive liquids." Section 834 (f) provides that "[w]hoever knowingly violates any such regulation shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more than one year, or both." In dismissing the information in this case because it did not charge the appellee shipper with knowing violation of the applicable labeling regulation, District Judge Porter [402 U.S. 558, 566] did no more than give effect to the ordinary meaning of the English language.
It is true, as the Court today points out, that the issue now before us was not directly involved in Boyce Motor Lines, Inc. v. United States, 342 U.S. 337 , which dealt with a claim that the statute is unconstitutionally vague. But in holding the statute valid, the Court bottomed its reasoning upon the proposition that "the presence of culpable intent [is] a necessary element of the offense." Id., at 342. Other federal courts, faced with the precise issue here presented, have held that the statute means exactly what it says - that the words "knowingly violates any such regulation" mean no more and no less than "knowingly violates any such regulation." St. Johnsbury Trucking Co. v. United States, 220 F.2d 393 (CA1 1955); United States v. Chicago Express, 235 F.2d 785 (CA7 1956). Chief Judge Magruder filed a concurring opinion in the St. Johnsbury case, and he put the matter thus:
The Court today thus grants to the Executive Branch what Congress explicitly refused to grant in 1960. It effectively deletes the word "knowingly" from the law. I cannot join the Court in this exercise, requiring as it does such a total disregard of plain statutory language, established judicial precedent, and explicit legislative history.
A final word is in order. Today's decision will have little practical impact upon the prosecution of interstate motor carriers or institutional shippers. For interstate [402 U.S. 558, 569] motor carriers are members of a regulated industry, and their officers, agents, and employees are required by law to be conversant with the regulations in question. 4 As a practical matter, therefore, they are under a species of absolute liability for violation of the regulations despite the "knowingly" requirement. This, no doubt, is as Congress intended it to be. Cf. United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277 ; United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250 . Likewise, prosecution of regular shippers for violations of the regulations could hardly be impeded by the "knowingly" requirement, for triers of fact would have no difficulty whatever in inferring knowledge on the part of those whose business it is to know, despite their protestations to the contrary. The only real impact of this decision will be upon the casual shipper, who might be any man, woman, or child in the Nation. A person who had never heard of the regulation might make a single shipment of an article covered by it in the course of a lifetime. It would be wholly natural for him to assume that he could deliver the article to the common carrier and depend upon the carrier to see that it was properly labeled and that the shipping papers were in order. Yet today's decision holds that a person who does just that is guilty of a criminal offense punishable by a year in prison. This seems to me a perversion of the purpose of criminal law.
I respectfully dissent from the opinion and judgment of the Court.
[ Footnote 1 ] See H. R. Rep. No. 1975, 86th Cong., 2d Sess., 10-11.
[ Footnote 2 ] S. Rep. No. 901, 86th Cong., 1st Sess., 2-3.
[ Footnote 3 ] H. R. Rep. No. 1975, 86th Cong., 2d Sess., 2.