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    BURNS v. UNITED STATES, 274 U.S. 328 (1927)

    U.S. Supreme Court

    BURNS v. UNITED STATES, 274 U.S. 328 (1927)

    274 U.S. 328

    No. 135.

    Argued November 24, 1926.
    Decided May 16, 1927.

    [274 U.S. 328, 329]   Messrs. R. W. Henderson, of Bakersfield, Cal., and Walter H. Pollak, of New York City, for plaintiff in error.

    The Attorney General and Mr. William D. Mitchell, Sol. Gen., of Washington, D. C., for the United States.

    [274 U.S. 328, 330]  

    Mr. Justice BUTLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

    An Act of Congress of June 2, 1920, 4, c. 218, 41 Stat. 731 (Comp. St. 5207d), provides that, if any offense shall be committed in the Yosemite National Park which is not prohibited by a law of the United States, the offender shall be subject to the same punishment as the laws of California prescribe for a like offense. Plaintiff in error was indicted for violating within that park the California Criminal Syndicalism Act (chapter 188, California Statutes 1919). The indictment was in two counts. The verdict was guilty on the first count and not guilty on the second. Plaintiff in error, by demurrer and by motion to arrest the judgment, insisted that the statute contravenes the Constitution of the United States. His contention was overruled. The case is here under section 238 of the Judicial Code (Comp. St. 1215) before the amendment of February 13, 1925

    The applicable provisions follow:

    Plaintiff in error here contends that, as applied in the district court, these provisions are repugnant to the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The only attack upon the validity of the law was by the demurrer and motion in arrest. In each [274 U.S. 328, 331]   of these, he asserted that the statute 'is in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and is void for uncertainty.' But that point is determined adversely to his contentions in Whitney v. People of the State of California, 274 U.S. 357 , 47 S. Ct. 641, decided this day.

    The substance of the count on which plaintiff in error was adjudged guilty is that on or about April 10, 1923, at Yosemite National Park, he did 'organize, and assist in organizing, and was, is, and knowingle become a member of an organization, society, group and assemblage of persons organized and assembled to advocate, teach, aid and abet criminal syndicalism, to wit, the Industrial Workers of the World, commonly known as I. W. W.'

    1. Plaintiff in error argues that he is entitled to a new trial because the charge contains the following:

    He calls attention to the language in section 1 and says the merely loading telephone poles on a ship so as to occasion more work is not physical damage or injury to physical property within the meaning of the statute.

    If that instruction stood alone it might be thought to permit the jury erroneously to expand the meaning of sabotage beyond that defined in the act. But it does not stand alone; and the mere comparison of the quoted language of the instruction with the words of the statute is not sufficient to disclose whether there was prejudicial error. The instruction must be taken in connection with [274 U.S. 328, 332]   the evidence bearing on the matter referred to and is to be considered in the light of the charge as a whole. New York Cent. & H. R. R. Co. v. United States, 212 U.S. 509, 508 , 29 S. Ct. 309; Hotema v. United States, 186 U.S. 413, 416 , 22 S. Ct. 895; C. M. Spring Drug Co. v. United States (C. C. A.) 12 F.(2d) 852, 856; People v. Scott, 6 Mich. 287, 291. There is no contention that plaintiff in error was not connected with the organization substantially as alleged, or that the evidence failed to show it to be the kind of organization specified in the indictment. The record shows that for a number of years he had been a member of the organization; that, at the time alleged and when arrested, he was its authorized delegate and had a quantity of its literature in his possession: that he solicited others to become members and was authorized to initiate new members and to collect initiation fees and dues. It also shows that the organization disseminated large amounts of printed matter declaring its purposes and advocating means to accomplish them. A 'preamble' was contained in practically all its publications and was printed on the membership card of plaintiff in error. It declares that the working class and employing class have nothing in common; that a struggle must go on between them until the workers organize, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production and abolish the wage system; that the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that they have interests in common with their employers; that, 'instead of the conservative motto, 'A fair day's wages for a fair day's work,' we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wage system;" that it is the mission of the working class to do away with capitalism; that the army of production must be organized to carry on when capitalism shall have been overthrown; that 'by organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.' [274 U.S. 328, 333]   Sabotage, as the evidence indicates it to have been advocated and taught by the organization, is not confined, as is the definition contained in the act, to physical damage and injury to physical property. The organization's printed matter that was received in evidence contains no precise definition of sabotage, but does give a number of descriptive explanations of what it means. As fairly illustrative, we take the following:

    The evidence shows that the organization advocated, taught and aided various acts of 'sabotage' that are plainly within the meaning of that word as defined by the act. Some examples are: Injuring machinery when employed to use it, putting emery dust in lubricating oil, damaging materials when using them in manufacture or otherwise, scattering foul seed in fields, driving tacks and nails in grape vines and fruit trees to kill them, using acid to destroy guy wires holding up the poles provided to support growing vines, putting pieces of wire and the like among vines to destroy machines used to gather crops, scattering matches and using chemicals to start fires to destroy property of employers. One of the witnesses testified:

    The foregoing sufficiently shows the foundation of fact for the portion of the charge complained of. Before giving that instruction, the court warned the jury that the government must establish beyond reasonable doubt that the I. W. W. was such an organization as is denounced by the act. The definition of criminal syndicalism was given the jury in the exact words of the statute. The court then gave a number of lexicographers' definitions of sabotage. They are broader than the meaning of the word as defined in the act and are not confined to physical damage or injury to physical property. Then, by way of contrast, the statutory definition of sabotage was repeated, and by the repetition it was emphasized. The court said:

    The instruction complained of followed. It referred to the evidence indicating that the organization advocated acts such as loading a ship so that it would list and have to return, and things of that kind. And in that connection the court said that any deliberate attempt to reduce profits 'in the manner that I have described' would [274 U.S. 328, 335]   constitute sabotage. The language excepted to was followed by an instruction containing this:

    While one of the purposes of such improper loading of ships may be to create more work for the men, and so to inflict loss on employers, it is also plainly calculated to endanger the vessels, their cargoes, and the lives of those aboard. By the instruction complained of the consideration of the jury was limited to 'things of that kind.' The advocating of the malicious commission of such acts is to teach and abet sabotaghe-physical damage and injury to physical property; it also is to teach and abet crime and unlawful methods of terrorism. It was not necessary for the prosecution to show that the elements of criminal syndicalism were advocated or taught with the precision of statement required in indictments for criminal acts involved. Cf. Wong Tai v. United States, 273 U.S. 77 , 47 S. Ct. 300, decided January 3, 1927. The purpose and probable effect of the printed matter circulated and of the things said in furtherance of the declared purposes of the organization are to be considered having regard to the capacity and circumstances of the persons sought to be influenced. When there is taken into account the evidence referred to and the parts of the charge preceding and following the part of the charge here assailed-and especially the giving and reiteration of the statutory language defining sabotage-it is quite apparent that the instruction was not erroneous.

    Both sides have dealt with the case here as if the question were properly raised, and we have considered its merits. McNitt v. Turner, 16 Wall. 352, 362; Baltimore & Potomac Railroad v. Mackey, 157 U.S. 72, 86 , 15 S. Ct. 491; Norfolk- [274 U.S. 328, 336]   & W. R. Co. v. Earnest, 229 U.S. 114 , 33 S. Ct. 654, Ann. Cas. 1914C, 172; Cf. West v. Rutledge Timber Co., 244 U.S. 90, 99 , 100 S., 37 S. Ct. 587. But, after examining the record, we think plaintiff in error failed to make any objection or effectively to take exception to the charge complained of. The exception there indicated did not call the court's attention to the instruction now attacked. It was general in form, and applied to the series of statements that followed it, covering about two pages of the record. Plaintiff in error does not contend that all of them are erroneous, and obviously they are not. The rule is well established that, where a series of instructions are excepted to in mass, the exception will be overruled, if any one of them is correct. Johnson v. Jones, 1 Black, 209, 220; Beaver v. Taylor, 93 U.S. 46 , 54; McDermott v. Severe, 202 U.S. 600, 610 , 26 S. Ct. 709. Exceptions to a charge must be specifically made, in order to give the court opportunity then and there to correct errors and omissions, if any. Pennsylvania R. Co. v. Minds, 250 U.S. 368, 375 , 39 S. Ct. 531, and cases cited; Allis v. United States, 155 U.S. 117, 122 , 15 S. Ct. 36. Even if some of the instructions were erroneous, the exceptions taken were not such as to require a new trial.

    2. Plaintiff in error complains of another part of the charge:

    The record does not contain all the evidence, and fails to show that it includes all relating to the matter referred to in this instruction. We think it cannot be said as a matter of law that the things there mentioned, when taken in connection with other facts, may not have been proper for consideration in connection with some element of the criminal syndicalism charged. Moreover, no objection was made or exception properly taken to that part of the charge. Here again the exception failed specifically to point out the instruction now assailed as erroneous.

    Judgment affirmed.

    Mr. Justice BRANDEIS (dissenting).

    This writ of error was allowed under section 238 of the Judicial Code, on constitutional grounds, prior to the amendment of February 13, 1925. All alleged errors at the trial which were properly excepted to are therefore before us. Chaloner v. Sherman, 242 U.S. 455, 457 , 37 S. Ct. 136. There was, at least, one error committed which, in my opinion, justifies reversal and which does not involve a constitutional question. For that reason, according to the practice approved by the court, I refrain from discussing the constitutional questions presented. See Liverpool, N. Y. & Phila. Steamship Co. v. Emigration Comm'rs, 113 U.S. 33, 39 , 5 S. Ct. 352; Chicago & G. T. R. Co. v. Wellman, 143 U.S. 339, 345 , 12 S. Ct. 400; Howat v. Kansas, 258 U.S. 181, 184 , 42 S. Ct. 277.

    The defendant was convicted on the count which charges him with becoming a member of an organization formed to advocate criminal syndicalism. The California statute defines criminal syndicalism as advocating sabotage, among other things, and it defines sabotage 'as [274 U.S. 328, 338]   meaning willful and malicious physical damage or injury to physical property.' To prove the crime, the government undertook to show that the defendant was a member of the I. W. W. and that the I. W. W. advocated, among other things, the use of sabotage. On that subject the trial judge gave the following instruction, which was duly excepted to:

    The testimony referred to by the court in the above instruction was this:

    The exception to the charge is insisted on, although the objection to the admission of the evidence is not urged here. The charge was clearly erroneous. It plainly directed the jury that 'slowing down on the job' and 'scamped work' constituted sabotage within the meaning [274 U.S. 328, 340]   of the statute. Since the jury must have taken it to be an exposition or interpretation of the words of the statute, the error was not cured by definition, elsewhere in the charge, of sabotage in the terms of the statute. The court ruled throughout the course of the trial, that evidence to show a program of scamped work was admissible. Much of the government's evidence consisted of documents showing such a program on the part of the I. W. W. The charge inevitably led the jury to think that all such evidence showed the guilty character of the organization.

    It is said that the charge, if erroneous, was not prejudicial, because the illegal character of the organization was established by other evidence than that which formed the basis of the charge, and because even the latter evidence showed the advocacy of acts which amounted to a malicious destruction of property, and so might properly support a conviction even under proper construction of the statute. Even in civil cases erroneous rulings, especially those embodied in instructions, are presumptively prejudicial. Fillippon v. Albion Slate Co., 250 U.S. 76, 82 , 39 S. Ct. 435; United States v. River Rouge Co., 269 U.S. 411, 421 , 46 S. Ct. 144. The illegal character of the organization was not conceded. There was evidence from which the illegal character might have been deduced. But the evidence related, in the main, to the acts of individuals. The effort of the defense was to disavow those acts.

    It is also said that the exception to the charge was not properly taken. The defendant excepted specifically to that portion of the charge which dealt with sabotage. The precise ground of the exception was not set forth. But the continued objections to the admission of evidence upon the ground here urged, and the court's adverse rulings thereon, could have left no doubt in the mind of the court as to what was meant by the exception here in question. Moreover, the case comes to this [274 U.S. 328, 341]   court from a lower federal court. We have, therefore, the power to correct errors committed below although objection was not taken there. That power has been repeatedly exercised in criminal cases. See Wiborg v. United States, 163 U.S. 632 , 658-660, 16 S. Ct. 1127, 1197; Clyatt v. United States, 197 U.S. 207, 221 , 222 S., 25 S. Ct. 429. This case, I think, warrants its exercise.

    The judgment should be reversed.

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