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United States v. Rabb

decided: May 27, 1982.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLANT
v.
RABB, WADE LEE



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

Before Aldisert, Weis and Becker, Circuit Judges.

Author: Aldisert

Opinion OF THE COURT

This appeal by the United States from the district court's order dismissing an indictment with prejudice requires us to decide whether a timely indictment returned by a grand jury whose term has expired, later superseded by an indictment returned by a valid grand jury, satisfies the Speedy Trial Act requirement that indictment occur within thirty days of arrest, 18 U.S.C. § 3161(b). We conclude that it does and therefore reverse.

I.

Appellee Wade Lee Rabb, who had been arrested on August 3, 1981, was indicted by a federal grand jury on August 10, 1981, on charges of robbing a postal carrier and jeopardizing the carrier's life with a dangerous weapon, 18 U.S.C. § 2114, and unlawful possession of stolen government checks, 18 U.S.C. § 1708. The United States Attorney subsequently discovered that the charging grand jury's term had expired on May 8, 1981.*fn1 On October 2, 1981, the government sought and obtained from an unexpired grand jury a superseding indictment identical in all material respects to the first, and advised defense counsel on October 4 of the reasons for this action. The district court dismissed the first indictment on the government's motion.

Arguing that he had not been indicted within thirty days of his arrest as required by the Speedy Trial Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3161(b), Rabb moved for dismissal on November 5, 1981. The following day the court held a hearing which it focused on "the government's mistake," and at the close of the hearing it dismissed the indictment with prejudice pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3162(a)(1).*fn2 Citing the jury supervisor's testimony that she had advised the assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of the grand jury to seek an extension of the grand jury's term, the court found that the government's failure to heed the advice was "gross negligence."

On November 12, 1981, the government filed a notice of appeal from the order of dismissal, properly invoking our jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 3731. The next day the district court, acting on its own motion, calendared for November 19 a "Hearing To Supplement The Record." At that hearing the court summoned and interrogated witnesses, produced evidence and ordered it admitted into the record, and argued legal and factual issues with counsel and witnesses. At the close of testimony and without hearing formal argument, the court announced that it would reaffirm its previous decision to dismiss Rabb's indictment with prejudice, concluding that the August 10 indictment was a nullity.

II.

The issue before us is solely one of statutory construction of the Speedy Trial Act. The Act requires speedy indictments as well as speedy trials following indictments: "Any information or indictment charging an individual with the commission of an offense shall be filed within thirty days from the date on which such individual was arrested or served with a summons in connection with such charges." 18 U.S.C. § 3161(b). Section 3162 implements the command of § 3161(b) by requiring dismissal of charges upon which no indictment has been filed within the time limits. But whether an indictment returned by a grand jury whose term has expired satisfies § 3161(b) is apparently a question of first impression in the courts of appeal.

To discern Congress' intent in § 3161(b), we begin with the language of the statute itself because we presume that the words Congress has chosen best reflect the legislative purpose. Consumer Product Safety Comm'n. v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102, 108, 100 S. Ct. 2051, 2056, 64 L. Ed. 2d 766 (1980); Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 9, 82 S. Ct. 585, 591, 7 L. Ed. 2d 492 (1962). Nevertheless, the approach is not one of slavish literalism, for "(a) word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used." Towne v. Eisner, 245 U.S. 418, 425, 38 S. Ct. 158, 159, 62 L. Ed. 372 (1918) (Holmes, J.). We reject a view that would make "a fortress out of a dictionary," remembering instead that "statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish, whose sympathetic and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning." Cabell v. Markham, 148 F.2d 737, 739 (2d Cir.) (Learned Hand, J.), aff'd., 326 U.S. 404, 66 S. Ct. 193, 90 L. Ed. 165 (1945). Thus, although the literal meaning of the words chosen by Congress is respected, we no longer follow a rigid, semantic approach to statutory construction, lest we construe a statute within its letter, but beyond Congress' intent.

The specific task before us is to determine whether the term "indictment" in § 3161(b) is broad enough to encompass an indictment returned by a grand jury whose term had expired, but regular in all other respects. Thus the specific question is to interpret an unclear norm; we are not faced with a lacuna, or a nonexistent norm. Viewed in light of its purpose in the statutory schema and with "an eye to the surrounding statutory landscape," United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 344, 92 S. Ct. 515, 521, 30 L. Ed. 2d 488 (1971), we conclude that appellee's reading of § 3161(b), although literally correct, is unsound, and that the August 10 indictment met the requirements of § 3161(b).

III.

In United States v. Goldstein, 502 F.2d 526, 529 (3d Cir. 1974) (in banc), this court identified the three functions of an indictment; the August 10 indictment performed all three. It put the defendant on notice of the exact nature of the charges he would be required to defend against; it would have protected him from a second trial on the same offense had he been acquitted, see United States v. Ball, 163 U.S. 662, 16 S. Ct. 1192, 41 L. Ed. 300 (1896); and it was returned by an independent body upon a finding of probable cause. The superseding indictment was identical to the one returned by the first grand jury, and there was no allegation that the government obtained either indictment fraudulently or in bad faith. Once Rabb was arraigned on that indictment he could begin to prepare his defense knowing exactly what the government had to prove. With this knowledge he could intelligently decide whether to face trial or attempt to plea bargain. The government, also ...


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