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PRUSSIAN v. UNITED STATES

decided: February 24, 1931.

PRUSSIAN
v.
UNITED STATES



CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT.

Hughes, Holmes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone, Roberts

Author: Stone

[ 282 U.S. Page 676]

 MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Prussian, the petitioner, was convicted in the District Court for Eastern New York of forging an endorsement purporting to be that of a payee of a government draft. At the trial, by motions to dismiss and in arrest of judgment, the sufficiency of the indictment was challenged on the ground that the offense charged was the forging of an obligation of the United States in violation of § 148 of the Criminal Code, U. S. C., Title 18, § 262, and that the endorsement alleged to have been forged was not such an obligation. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the judgment, holding that the indictment sufficiently charged a violation of that section. 42 F.2d 854.

Certiorari was asked on the ground, among others, that the decision below conflicted with decisions of the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, Gesell v. United States, 1 F.2d 283; Lewis v. United States, 8 F.2d 849. See also White v. Levine, 40 F.2d 502. In accord with the decision below are Hamil v. United States, 298 Fed. 369, and Alvarado v. United States, 9 F.2d 385; cf. United States v. Jolly, 37 Fed. 108; DeLemos v. United States, 91 Fed. 497. Because of the conflict the petition was not opposed by the government, although it suggested that the indictment might also be upheld as charging a forgery of a "writing, for the purpose of obtaining . . . from the

[ 282 U.S. Page 677]

     United States . . . any sum of money" under § 29 of the Criminal Code, U. S. C., Title 18, § 73. This Court granted the petition, limiting review to the question whether the indictment stated an offense under the Criminal Code.

The indictment charged the forging by petitioner of "a certain obligation of the United States," described as the endorsement on a draft, drawn by a disbursing clerk of the United States Treasury upon the Treasurer of the United States and issued to the payee, "by falsely making and forging the name of the payee . . . on the back of said draft." It set out a copy of the draft and the endorsement, and alleged that together they constituted a forged obligation of the United States. The indictment also set up that the endorsement was "for the purpose of obtaining and receiving from the Treasurer of the United States a sum of money," and was stated to be in violation of both §§ 29 and 148 of the Criminal Code.

Under § 148, "whoever, with intent to defraud, shall falsely make, forge, counterfeit, or alter any obligation or other security of the United States" is guilty of a criminal offense. Section 147 provides: "The words 'obligation or other security of the United States' shall be held to mean all . . . checks, or drafts for money drawn by or upon authorized officers of the United States." It is apparent that the draft drawn on the Treasurer by an authorized officer is an "obligation . . . of the United States" both in common parlance and by the express definition of § 147. But to extend the meaning of that phrase so as to embrace the endorsement on the government draft is to enlarge the statutory definition, and would be possible only by a strained construction of the language of §§ 147 and 148, inadmissible in the interpretation of criminal statutes, which must be strictly construed. See Fasulo v. United States, 272 U.S. 620; United States v. Salen, 235 U.S. 237.

[ 282 U.S. Page 678]

     The writing described in the indictment, when issued by the drawer, was a check or a draft. The added endorsement was in itself neither a check nor a draft. We need not stop to consider the argument advanced that the obligation upon the draft does not become complete until it is endorsed, see Hamil v. United States, supra, p. 371 for it overlooks the circumstance that the meaning of "obligation" in § 148 is narrowed by the definition in § 147 to specifically enumerated written instruments, including checks or drafts for money, which are complete, as such, within the statutory definition and in common understanding, at least when issued to the payee by an authorized officer of the government. The endorsement was at most the purported obligation of the endorser, not of the United States, and a purported transfer of the title of the draft to the endorsee. In neither aspect was the endorsement itself an obligation of the United States as defined by § 147, or such a part of the draft as to constitute the forging of the endorsement a forgery of the draft.

If the point were doubtful, the doubt would be resolved by a consideration of the purpose and history of the Act of which § 148 is a part, and a comparison of it with related provisions of the Criminal Code. Its purpose has been declared by this Court to be the protection of the bonds or currency of the United States, and not the punishment of any fraud or wrong on individuals. Dunbar v. United States, 156 U.S. 185, 193; cf. United States v. Turner, 7 Pet. 132, 136; United States v. Stewart, 4 Wash. C. C. 226. Section 148 is a reenactment of § 18 of the Act of April 10, 1816, 3 Stat. 266, 275, which made punishable the forgery of bills, notes, orders or checks of the Bank of the United States. The legislation took ...


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