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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Union Supply Co., 215 U.S. 50 (1909)

United States v. Union Supply Company

No. 120

Argued October 13, 14, 1909

Decided November 8, 1909

215 U.S. 50




Where corporations are as much within the mischief aimed at by a penal statute and as capable of willful breaches of the law as individuals, the statute will not, if it can be reasonably interpreted as including corporations, be interpreted as excluding them.

Where a penal statute prescribes two independent penalties, it will be construed as meaning to inflict them so far as possible, and, if one is

Page 215 U. S. 51

impossible, the guilty defendant is not to escape the other which is possible.

Section 6 of the Act of May 9, 1902, c. 784, 32 Stat. 193, imposing certain duties on wholesale dealers in oleomargarine and imposing penalties of fine and imprisonment for violations applies to corporations, notwithstanding the penalty of imprisonment cannot be inflicted on a corporation.

The facts are stated in the opinion.

Page 215 U. S. 53

MR. JUSTICE Holmes delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an indictment of a corporation for willfully violating

Page 215 U. S. 54

the sixth section of the Act of Congress of May 9, 1902, c. 784, § 6, 32 Stat.193, 197. That section requires "wholesale dealers" in oleomargarine, etc., to keep certain books and to make certain returns. It then goes on as follows:

"And any person who willfully violates any of the provisions of this section shall, for each such offense, be fined not less than fifty dollars and not exceeding five hundred dollars, and imprisoned not less than thirty days nor more than six months."

The corporation moved to quash the indictment, and the district court quashed it on the ground that the section is not applicable to corporations. Thereupon the United States brought this writ of error.

The argument for the defendant in error is drawn from an earlier decision by the same court. It is that § 5 applies in express terms to corporations, and gives the court discretionary power to punish by either fine or imprisonment, or both, whereas, in § 6, both punishments are imposed in all cases, and corporations are not mentioned; that it is impossible to imprison a corporation, and that the statute warrants no sentence that does not comply with its terms. United States v. Braun & Fitts, 158 F.4d 6. We are of opinion that this reasoning is unsound. In the first place, taking up the argument drawn from § 5, that corporations were omitted intentionally from the requirements of § 6, it is to be noticed that the sixth section of the present act copies its requirements from the Act of October 1, 1890, c. 1244, § 41, 26 Stat. 567, 621, which did not contain the penal clause. In its earlier form the enactment clearly applied to corporations, and when the same words were repeated in the later act, it is not to be supposed that their meaning was changed. The words "wholesale dealers" are as apt to embrace corporations here as they are in § 2, requiring such dealers to pay certain taxes. We have no doubt that they were intended to embrace them. The words "any person" in the penal clause are as broad as "wholesale dealers" in the part prescribing the duties. U.S.Rev.Stat. § 1. It is impossible to believe that corporations were intentionally

Page 215 U. S. 55

excluded. They are as much within the mischief aimed at as private persons, and as capable of a "willful" breach of the law. New York Central & Hudson River R. Co. v. United States, 212 U. S. 481. If the defendant escapes, it does so on the single ground that, as it cannot suffer both parts of the punishment, it need not suffer one.

It seems to us that a reasonable interpretation of the words used does not lead to such a result. If we compare § 5, the application of one of the penalties, rather than of both, is made to depend not on the character of the defendant, but on the discretion of the judge, yet there, corporations are mentioned in terms. See Hawke v. E. Hulton & Co., (1909) 2 K.B. 93, 98. And if we free our minds from the notion that criminal statutes must be construed by some artificial and conventional rule, the natural inference, when a statute prescribes two independent penalties, is that it means to inflict them so far as it can, and that, if one of them is impossible, it does not mean, on that account, to let the defendant escape. See Commonwealth v. Pulaski County Agricultural & Mechanical Association, 92 Ky.197, 201. In Hawke v. E. Hulton & Co., (1909) 2 K.B. 93, it was held that the words "any person" in one section of a penal act did not embrace a corporation, notwithstanding a statute like our Rev.Stat. § 1. But that was not so much on the ground that imprisonment was contemplated as a punishment as because the person convicted was to be "deemed a rogue and a vagabond." Moreover, it was thought that corporations could be reached under another section of the act.

Judgment reversed.

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