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POTTER v. U S, 155 U.S. 438 (1894)

U.S. Supreme Court

POTTER v. U S, 155 U.S. 438 (1894)

155 U.S. 438

POTTER
v.
UNITED STATES.
No. 531.

December 17, 1894

Asa P. Potter, president of the Maverick National Bank, was indicted for violation of the banking law. From a conviction (56 Fed. 83, 97), defendant brings error. [155 U.S. 438, 439]   By section 5208 of the Revised Statutes, it is provided that 'it shall be unlawful for any officer, clerk, or agent of any national banking association to certify any check drawn upon the association unless the person or company drawing the check has on deposit with the association, at the time such check is certified, an amount of money equal to the amount specified in such check.'

No penalty was imposed on the individual for a violation of this section. But on July 12, 1882 (22 Stat. 166), it was enacted:

In May, 1892, the defendant was indicted in the circuit court of the United States for the district of Massachusetts for a violation of these sections. The indictment contained 88 counts. By demurrer and nolle, the last 48 counts were disposed of before the trial, which proceeded upon the first 40. In these 40 counts the unlawful certification of 5 checks was charged; the first 8 counts relating to one check, the next 8 to another, and so on. The case came on for trial in February, 1893, and resulted in [155 U.S. 438, 440]   a verdict of guilty on 15 counts,-3 in respect to the certification of each check. A motion for a new trial having been overruled, the defendant was sentenced to pay a fine of $1,000, and to be imprisoned in jail for the term of 60 days. To reverse this judgment the defendant has brought this writ of error.

The third count in the indictment, which was one of those upon which the defendant was found guilty, after stating time and venue, and that the defendant was president of the Maverick National Bank, and authorized to lawfully certify checks, charged 'that said Potter, as such president as aforesaid, did then and there, to wit, on said twenty-third day of July, at Boston aforesaid, within said district, and within the jurisdiction of this court, unlawfully, knowingly, and willfully certify a certain check, which said check was then and there drawn upon said association for the amount of twenty-four hundred and fifty dollars by certain persons, to wit, Irving A. Evans, Austin B. Tobey, and William S. Bliss, copartners, then and there doing business under the firm name and style of Irving A. Evans & Company, and which said check was then and there of the tenor following, that is to say:

Irving A. Evans & Co.

-by then and there writing, placing, and putting in and upon and across the face of said check the words and figures following, that is to say:

[meaning said Asa P. Potter, such president as aforesaid].

All the counts upon which the defendant was found guilty, both in respect to this and the other checks, were, so far as any question is involved in this case, substantially like the one quoted.

On the trial the books of the bank were presented, showing that at the times these five checks were certified the account of Evans & Co. was overdrawn in a large sum,-between $100,000 and $200,000. There was testimony tending to show that upon each day that these checks were certified, and prior thereto, Evans & Co. deposited in cash an amount more than sufficient to cover the certifications. Thereupon, as the bill of exceptions shows:

And in pursuance of this offer the defendant asked the witness certain questions, for the purpose of showing a state of facts, as indicated in the offer, but the testimony was rejected; the court saying, in response to an inquiry of counsel as to whether 'a definite agreement' was ruled out:

Exceptions were duly taken to the action of the court in this respect.

Among other instructions to the jury was the following:

To the giving of which instruction the defendant at the time duly excepted.

W. S. B. Hopkins and Henry D. Hyde, for plaintiff in error.

Asst. Atty. Gen. Conrad, for the United States.

Mr. Justice BREWER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

The only questions which we deem it material to consider are those presented by the foregoing extracts from the record. The first is, was the indictment sufficient?

It is objected that 'certification,' to constitute an offense [155 U.S. 438, 444]   within the scope of the statute, must be such an act or series of acts as creates a contract binding upon the bank; that a mere writing of the word 'certified' on a check does not, until delivery to some person, have any such effect; and that while an indictment charging simply, in the language of the statute, that the defendant wrongfully certified a check, might carry an implication that the check was not only written upon, but also delivered so as to complete the contract included in the word 'certification,' yet here the pleader has limited the scope of those words by a particular statement of what the defendant did, which statement does not include the matter of deliverty. Every allegation made in the indictment might, it is said, be satisfied by proof that the defendant, finding on his table a check of the form described, wrote the words thereon as charged, and then tore the paper up and threw it in the fire, or disposed of it in some other way so as not to create any obligation against the bank.

We think this is placing too narrow a construction on the indictment. The offense charged is a statutory one, and while it is doubtless true that it is not always sufficient to use simply the language of the statute in describing such an offense (U. S. v. Carll, 105 U.S. 611 ), yet if such language is, according to the natural import of the words, fully descriptive of the offense, then ordinarily it is sufficient.

The word 'certify,' as commonly understood, implies that the check upon which the words of certification have been written has passed from the custody of the bank, and into the hands of some other party; and when the charge is that the defendant 'did unlawfully, knowingly, and willfully certify a certain check,' the import of that accusation is not simply that he wrote certain words on the face of the check, but that he did it in such a manner as to create an obligation of the bank,-in such a way as to make an instrument which can properly be called a 'certified check.' And the subsequent recital, 'by then and there writing, placing, and putting in and upon and across the face of said check the words and figures following,' etc., is not to be taken as absolutely limiting the import of the word 'certified' to the mere act of so [155 U.S. 438, 445]   writing, placing, etc., but as simply descriptive of the form of the certification,-of that which he personally did. It was not necessary, to constitute the offense, that he should himself deliver the check to some third party outside the bank, or even that he should take any part in such delivery. His offense would be complete if, after he had written the words of certification, as stated, with the intent that they should be used to create a contract on the part of the bank, the actual delivery had been made by some clerk or other officer of the bank without his actual knowledge. The full details of the transaction by which the words written by him upon the face of this instrument became operative to make it a 'certified check' were matters of evidence, rather than of allegation. An unlawful certification is, in terms, charged, and the form of the writing creating the certification is given.

It is generally true, as claimed, that, where an indictment is unnecessarily descriptive, even the unnecessary description must be proved as laid; but that proposition does not seem to be in point, for it is not claimed that the testimony did not show just such a writing as is charged to have been made by the defendant, and surely it cannot be claimed that unnecessary matter of description must be proved otherwise than as it is stated. While there is plausibility in the contention of counsel, yet we think it would be giving an unnecessary strictness to the language of the indictment to adjudge it insufficient, or to hold that it failed to inform the defendant exactly of what he was accused, or lacked that precision and certainty of description which would enable him to always use a judgment upon it as a bar to any other prosecution; and that, as we all know, is the substantial purpose of a written charge.

The next question relates to the admissibility of the testimony which was offered and rejected. The charge is of a willful violation. That is the language of the statute. Section 5208, Rev. St., makes it unlawful for any officer of a national bank to certify a check unless the drawer has on deposit at the time an equal amount of money. But this section carries with it no penalty against the wrongdoing [155 U.S. 438, 446]   officer. Section 13 of the act of 1882 imposes the penalty, and imposes it upon one 'who shall wilfully violate,' etc., as well as upon one 'who shall resort to any device,' etc., 'to evade the provisions of the act,' 'or who shall certify checks before the amount thereof shall have been regularly entered to the credit of the dealer upon the books of the banking association.' The word 'willful' is omitted from the description of offenses in the latter part of this section. Its presence in the first cannot be regarded as mere surplusage; it means something. It implies on the part of the officer knowledge and a purpose to do wrong. Something more is required than an act of certification made in excess of the actual deposit, but in ignorance of that fact, or without any purpose to evade or disobey the mandates of the law. The significance of the word 'willful' in criminal statutes has been considered by this court. In Felton v. U. S., 96 U.S. 699 , 702, it was said:

And later, in the case of Evans v. U. S., 153 U.S. 584, 594 , 14 S. Sup. Ct. 934, there was this reference to the words 'willfully misapplied':

Now, it is not disputed that if the overdraft had in form been canceled on the books of the bank, and a note taken for the amount thereof, so that the obligation of Evans & Co. was evidenced only by a note, and not left as an open account, this particular section of the law would not be applicable, and any wrong done by the defendant in making or continuing [155 U.S. 438, 447]   such a loan would have to be punished by proceedings under some other section. If at the opening of the account a note of $200,000 had been discounted, and the amount entered to the credit of Evans & Co., the certifications complained of would not have been in violation of this section, because the credit side of the account would always have been in excess of the certifications; or if, at the close of each day's business, a note had been taken for the balance due the bank, and the open account canceled, the same result would follow, because each morning, before any certification, an amount in money was deposited larger than the total certifications of the day. The testimony offered tended to show an agreement on the part of the officers of the bank to treat this overdraft as a loan, drawing interest and secured by collateral, and that such agreement was carried into effect by the deposit of the collateral and the casting up of interest. If the defendant, in good faith, supposed that this arrangement was the equivalent of a loan by note, and that the indebtedness of Evans & Co. was fully secured by collateral, it seems to us that the jury would have a right to be informed of the fact, as bearing upon the question whether he had 'willfully' violated the statute. It cannot be that the guilt or innocence of the defendant, under this indictment, turns upon the mere matter of bookkeeping. While it is true that care must be taken not to weaken the wholesome provisions of the statutes designed to protect depositors and stockholders against the wrongdoings of banking officials, it is of equal importance that they should not be so construed as to make transactions of such officials, carried on with the utmost honesty, and in a sincere belief that no wrong was being done, criminal offenses, and subjecting them to the severe punishments which may be imposed under those statutes. We must not be understood as holding that this testimony established an absolute defense, and that by the form of such an agreement the mandatory terms of section 5208 can be evaded, but only that evidence of a positive agreement upon the part of the officers of the bank that this overdraft account should be practically treated as a loan from day to day, to be and in fact secured by ample collateral, coupled with testi- [155 U.S. 438, 448]   mony that for the checks certified each day there was deposited in advance an ample amount of cash, should have been submitted to the jury on the question of 'willful' wrongdoing. As 'willful' wrong is of the essence of the accusation, testimony bearing directly on the question of willfulness is of vital importance, and error in rejecting it cannot be regarded otherwise than as material, and manifestly prejudicial.

The remaining question is in reference to the instruction as to the burden of proof. We think that, so far as respects the particular matter mentioned in the instruction quoted, the rule remains as in other phases of a criminal trial,-that the burden of proof is on the government, and the defendant is entitled to the benefit of a reasonable doubt. It may be that certain presumptions follow from the entries in the books, and accompanying testimony introduced by the government. It may also be that those presumptions are conclusive, in the absence of contradictory or explanatory testimony, and, in that aspect of the case, that the defendant must introduce something to weaken the otherwise conclusive force of such presumptions; but, whenever testimony thus contradicting or explaining is introduced, it becomes a part of the burden resting upon the government to make the case so clear that there is no reasonable doubt as to the inferences and presumptions claimed to flow from the books or other evidence. Judgment reversed and new trial ordered.

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