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SPURR v. U.S., 174 U.S. 728 (1899)

U.S. Supreme Court

SPURR v. U.S., 174 U.S. 728 (1899)

174 U.S. 728

No. 448.

May 22, 1899. [174 U.S. 728, 729]   Spurr was tried in the circuit court of the United States for the Middle district of Tennessee on three indictments, each containing several counts, for the violation of section 5208 of the Revised Statutes, which provides:

By section 13 of the act of congress approved July 12, 1882 (22 Stat. 162, c. 290), it is provided:

The indictments charged that Spurr, being the president of the Commercial National Bank of Nashville, Tenn., willfully violated the provisions of section 5208 of the Revised Statutes, by willfully, unlawfully, and knowingly certifying certain checks drawn on said bank by Dobbins & Dazey, well [174 U.S. 728, 730]   knowing that Dobbins & Dazey did not have on deposit with the bank, at the times when the checks were certified, respectively, an amount of money equal to the respective amounts specified therein. They were consolidated and tried together, and a verdict of guilty returned as follows: 'Came the United States attorney, and also the defendant in proper person, and came also the jury heretofore impaneled, and upon their oaths do say that they find the defendant guilty as charged in the indictment, and recommend him to the mercy of the court.'

Motions for new trial and in arrest of judgment were made and overruled, and judgment entered on the verdict in these words:

The several counts of the consolidated indictments charged the certification by defendant of four checks, drawn by Dobbins & Dazey between December 9, 1892, and February 13, 1893, both inclusive, on the Commercial National Bank, aggregating $95,641.95. The bank was organized in 1884, and [174 U.S. 728, 731]   defendant was its president and one Porterfield its cashier from its organization to its failure, March 25, 1893. Dobbins & Dazey were engaged in the purchase, sale, and exportation of cotton, and their financial standing and credit were excellent. When the four checks in question were certified by defendant the account of Dobbins & Dazey was overdrawn, and the evidence was that their account was continuously and largely overdrawn during the period dovered by these checks, except on one day, and that 'this fact was known to Porterfield, the cashier, and all the employees of the bank under him in authority.' But 'there was also evidence tending to show that Porterfield misrepresented the real state of the Dobbins & Dazey account to the defendant, and the committees and the directors of the bank, by statements made to them, and also in his sworn reports to the comptroller of the currency, wherein the overdrafts in the bank were very largely understated.' There was also evidence on behalf of defendant to the effect 'that he had no knowledge of the fact that the account of Dobbins & Dazey was overdrawn on the books of the bank at the time of the certification of any of the checks upon which he is indicted, nor at any time during the period covered by the dates of the checks'; that, when he certified these checks, he inquired in every instance, either of the cashier or of the exchange clerk, and in every instance received information that sufficient funds and credits of Dobbins & Dazey were then in the bank to cover the checks certified, and that he never at any time certified a check without receiving such information, and that he relied upon it as true; that, if the cashier was in, he inquired of him, and, if not, he inquired of the exchange clerk,-these being the appropriate sources of information. The evidence on this head is given in much detail in the bill of exceptions.

The bill of exceptions also stated:

Sentence having been pronounced as before stated, the case was taken on error to the circuit court of appeals for the Sixth circuit, and the judgment was affirmed (59 U. S. App. 663, 31 C. C. A. 202, and 87 Fed. 701 ), whereupon the cause was brought to this court on certiorari.

John A. Pitts and Albert H. Horton, for petitioner.

Ed. Baxter, Sol. Gen. Richards, and Asst. Atty. Gen. Thompson, for the United States.

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

It was not denied that defendant certified the checks, and that the account of Dobbins & Dazey was overdrawn when the certifications took place. The questions for determination were defendant's knowledge of the state of Dobbins & Dazey's account when the checks were certified, and his intent in the certifications.

Section 5208 made it unlawful for any officer, clerk, or agent [174 U.S. 728, 734]   of any national banking association to certify any check drawn upon it, unless the drawer of the check had on deposit, at the time such check was certified, an amount of money equal to the amount specified therein, and provided the consequences which should follow on a violation of the section. Then came section 13 of the act of July 12, 1882, which made a willful violation of section 5208 criminal, and denounced a penalty thereon.

These sections were under consideration in Potter v. U. S., 155 U.S. 438, 445 , 15 S. Sup. Ct. 144, and the court said:

The wrongful intent is the essence of the crime. If an officer certifies a check with the intent that the drawer shall obtain so much money out of the bank, when he has none there, such officer not only certifies unlawfully, but the specific intent to violate the statute may be imputed. And so evil design may be presumed if the officer purposely keeps himself in ignorance of whether the drawer has money in the bank or not, or is grossly indifferent to his duty in respect to the ascertainment of that fact.

The defense was that defendant had no actual knowledge that Dobbins & Dazey had not sufficient funds in the bank to meet the checks, nor knowledge of facts putting him on inquiry; that, on the contrary, he believed that they had such funds; that this belief was founded on information he received from the cashier or the exchange clerk, the proper sources of information, in response to inquiries which he made in each instance before he certified; that he honestly relied on that information, and that he had the right to do so. Defendant was entitled to the full benefit of this defense, and, in order to that, it was vital that the meaning of 'willful violation,' as used in section 13 of the act of 1882, should be clearly explained to the jury. [174 U.S. 728, 736]   It appears from this record that, after the case, had been committed to the jury, and they had had it under consideration for some hours, they returned to the court room, and asked the following question, which was written out: 'We want the law as to the certification of checks when no money appeared to the credit of the drawer.' The court then read to the jury the first part of section 5208 of the Revised Statutes, and inquired: 'Does this answer your question?' To which the foreman replied: 'Yes, sir.' The court again read that part of the section, and made certain observations,-among other things, that a false certification 'is the certifying by an officer of a bank that a check is good when there are no funds to meet it.'

The record shows that then, 'as the jury were retiring, counsel for the defendant said to the court that he thought what the jury wanted was the act of 1882, making it a misdemeanor to willfully violate the section of the Revised Statutes which the court had read to them, and that the court ought to read and explain that act to the jury. The court asked if counsel referred to the act prescribing the penalty for false certification, and, on being answered in the affirmative, stated that the jury had nothing to do with that.' Exception was taken to the reading twice of the part of section 5208, and the failure to read and explain the act of 1882, and to the additional instructions given by the court.

We think that the learned circuit judge clearly erred in declining the request of counsel in respect of section 13.

It is true that it was not part of the function of the jury to fix the penalty, and the remark of the court, 'that the jury had nothing to do with that,' undoubtedly referred to the penalty only, though, as the matter appears in the record, the jury may well enough have understood it differently. But it the act of 1882 that made the certification of checks, if in 'willful violation' of section 5208, a criminal offense, and the word 'willful' 'implies on the part of the officer knowledge and a purpose to do wrong,' and plainly it was in relation to the point of 'willful violation' that counsel wished the court to read and expound that section. It seems to us that it [174 U.S. 728, 737]   was the duty of the court to do so, if the question put by the jury was answered at all, since 'the law as to the certification of checks when no money appeared to the credit of the drawer' involves civil consequences under section 5208, and criminal consequences under section 13, unless it is to be held that every certification where funds are lacking constitutes a willful violation of section 5208. We cannot accept the view that because, when the court asked the jury whether the first part of section 5208 answered their question, the foreman replied in the affirmative, therefore there was no error in the failure to call their attention to section 13. If the court was satisfied that the law applicable to the case was embodied in the first part of section 5208, the jury were bound to be satisfied also; but we are of opinion that that was an insufficient definition, and was therefore erroenous. However, the court went further, and said:

We fear that these instructions, following in direct connection with what had passed in reference to section 5208, may have led the jury to understand the law of the case to be that the false certification thus defined constituted a criminal offense under the statute, and that that impression was not renderd harmless by the admonition that what was then said was to be taken with what had been said before.

At all events, we think it would be going too far to hold [174 U.S. 728, 738]   that that caution operated to obviate the error in failing to explain section 13 at this particular juncture. The jury had been considering their verdict for several hours, and had then, in effe t, requested a more complete definition of the offense. This the courts assumed to give, but it was incomplete, and what was omitted cannot properly be held to have been supplied, under the circumstances, by the reference to prior instructions. The court had, indeed, in the original charge, used the words 'willfully' and 'willful' in the following instructions:

The court had also said that, 'in general, if the defendant acted in good faith in making these certifications, believing that the state of the account of Dobbins & Dazey justified it, he is not guilty of the offense charged. Mere negligence or carelessness, unaccompanied by bad faith, would not render him guilty.' And other passages of similar purport might be quoted.

But the jury desired further advice as to what constituted criminal certification, or willful violation of section 5208, and preferred a request which required a comprehensive answer. The response was in the nature of a separate charge, and we are unable to conclude that the error in declining at that time to call attention to section 13 was cured by the bare reference to the original charge.

Many other errors were assigned, and pressed in argument; but, as the particular points may not arise in the same way on another trial, we prefer to refrain from expressing any opinion upon them.

The judgment of the circuit court of appeals is reversed. The judgment of the circuit court is also reversed, and the cause remanded to that court, with a direction to set aside the verdict and grant a new trial.

Mr. Justice BROWN and Mr. Justice McKENNA dissented.

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