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U.S. Supreme Court

District of Columbia v. Clawans, 300 U.S. 617 (1937)

District of Columbia v. Clawans

No. 103

Argued November 18, 1936

Reargued March 1, 1937

Decided April 5, 1937

300 U.S. 617


1. The offense of engaging, without a license, in the business of a dealer in second-hand personal property, defined by the Code of the District of Columbia, punishable by a fine of not more than $300 or imprisonment of not more than 90 days, is to be classed as a petty offense which, consistently with Art. III, § 2, cl. 3, of the Constitution, may be tried without a jury. P. 300 U. S. 624.

2. In determining whether an offense is a petty offense that constitutionally may be tried without a jury, the severity of the penalty inflictable, as well as the moral quality of the act and its relation to common law crimes, should be considered. P. 300 U. S. 625.

Page 300 U. S. 618

3. Engaging in the business of selling second-hand property without a license was not indictable at common law. Today it is, at most, but an infringement of local police regulations, and its moral quality is relatively inoffensive. P. 300 U. S. 625.

4. In England and in the American States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, confinement for a period of 90 days or more was not an unusual punishment for petty offenses, tried without a jury. P. 300 U. S. 626.

5. The question whether an offense is triable without a jury is unaffected by the fact that the offender is not entitled to an appeal as of right; it must be assumed that, in a proper case, authority in the appellate court to allow an appeal will be exercised. P. 300 U. S. 627.

6. Assuming that, with change of the common attitude towards severity of punishment, a petty offense which, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, would have been triable without a jury may come within the provision of the Constitution requiring jury trial, the existence of such change must be determined by objective standards such as may be seen in the laws and practices of the community taken as a gauge of its social and ethical judgments. P. 300 U. S. 627.

The Act of Congress applicable to this case, and statutes in force in the States and in England, together with numerous state court decisions, are examined, and are persuasive that there has been no such change in the generally accepted standards of punishment as would overcome the presumption that a summary punishment of 90 days' imprisonment, permissible when the Constitution was adopted, is permissible now.

7. Common experience teaches that testimony delivered against a defendant in a criminal case by private police or detectives, acting in the course of their private employment, is open to the suspicion of bias, especially when uncorroborated, and the cross-examination of such witnesses, bearing directly on substantial issues, should not be summarily curtailed. P. 300 U. S. 630.

8. While the extent of cross-examination rests in the sound discretion of the trial judge, in this case, discretion was abused, and the error prejudicial. P. 300 U. S. 632.

Throughout the trial, rulings of the judge prevented cross-examination in appropriate fields and excluded questions bearing on the credibility of witnesses for the prosecution and on the commission by the accused of the acts charged.

66 App.D.C. 11, 84 F.2d 265, affirmed.

Page 300 U. S. 619

Certiorari, 299 U.S. 524, to review a judgment reversing a conviction in the Police Court of the District of Columbia. The opinion disapproves of the reason given by the court below, but affirms the reversal upon another ground which that court deemed unsubstantial.

Page 300 U. S. 623

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