UNITED STATES V. KOZMINSKI, 487 U. S. 931 (1988)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Kozminski, 487 U.S. 931 (1988)

United States v. Kozminski

No. 86-2000

Argued February 23, 1988

Decided June 29, 1988

487 U.S. 931


After two mentally retarded men were found laboring on respondents' farm in poor health, in squalid conditions, and in relative isolation from the rest of society, respondents were charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 241 by conspiring to prevent the men from exercising their Thirteenth Amendment right to be free from involuntary servitude, and with violating 18 U.S.C. § 1584 by knowingly holding the men in involuntary servitude. At respondents' trial in Federal District Court, the Government's evidence indicated, inter alia, that the two men worked on the farm seven days a week, often 17 hours a day, at first for $15 per week and eventually for no pay, and that, in addition to actual or threatened physical abuse and a threat to reinstitutionalize one of the men if he did not do as he was told, respondents had used various forms of psychological coercion to keep the men on the farm. The court instructed the jury that, under both statutes, involuntary servitude may include situations involving any

"means of compulsion . . . sufficient in kind and degree to subject a person having the same general station in life as the alleged victims to believe they had no reasonable means of escape and no choice except to remain in the service of the employer."

The jury found respondents guilty, and the court imposed sentences. However, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial, concluding that the trial court's definition of involuntary servitude was too broad, in that it included general psychological coercion. The court held that involuntary servitude exists only when the master subjects the servant to (1) threatened or actual physical force, (2) threatened or actual state-imposed legal coercion, or (3) fraud or deceit where the servant is a minor or an immigrant or is mentally incompetent.

Held: For purposes of criminal prosecution under § 241 or § 1584, the term "involuntary servitude" necessarily means a condition of servitude in which the victim is forced to work for the defendant by the use or threat of physical restraint or physical injury or by the use or threat of coercion through law or the legal process. This definition encompasses cases in which the defendant holds the victim in servitude by placing him or her in fear of such physical restraint or injury or legal coercion. Pp. 487 U. S. 939-953.

(a) The Government cannot prove a § 241 conspiracy to violate rights secured by the Thirteenth Amendment without proving that the conspiracy

Page 487 U. S. 932

involved the use or threatened use of physical or legal coercion. The fact that the Amendment excludes from its prohibition involuntary servitude imposed "as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted" indicates that the Amendment's drafters thought that involuntary servitude generally includes situations in which the victim is compelled to work by law. Moreover, the facts that the phrase "involuntary servitude" was intended "to cover those forms of compulsory labor akin to African slavery," Butler v. Perry, 240 U. S. 328, 240 U. S. 332, and that the Amendment extends beyond state action, cf. U.S.Const., Amdt. 14, § 1, imply an intent to prohibit compulsion through physical coercion. These assessments are confirmed by this Court's decisions construing the Amendment, see, e.g., Clyatt v. United States, 197 U. S. 207, which have never interpreted the guarantee of freedom from involuntary servitude to specifically prohibit compulsion of labor by other means, such as psychological coercion. Pp. 487 U. S. 941-944.

(b) The language and legislative history of § 1584 and its statutory progenitors indicate that its reach should be limited to cases involving the compulsion of services by the use or threatened use of physical or legal coercion. That is the understanding of the Thirteenth Amendment's "involuntary servitude" phrase that prevailed at the time of § 1584's enactment and, since Congress clearly borrowed that phrase in enacting § 1584, the phrase should have the same meaning in both places absent any contrary indications. Section 1584's history undercuts the contention that Congress had a broader concept of involuntary servitude in mind when it enacted the statute, and does not support the Court of Appeals' conclusion that immigrants, children, and mental incompetents are entitled to any special protection. Pp. 487 U. S. 944-948.

(c) The Government's broad construction of "involuntary servitude" -- which would prohibit the compulsion of services by any type of speech or intentional conduct that, from the victim's point of view, either leaves the victim with no tolerable alternative but to serve the defendant or deprives the victim of the power of choice -- could not have been intended by Congress. That interpretation would appear to criminalize a broad range of day-to-day activity; would delegate to prosecutors and juries the inherently legislative task of determining what type of coercive activities are so morally reprehensible that they should be punished as crimes; would subject individuals to the risk of arbitrary or discriminatory prosecution and conviction; and would make the type of coercion prohibited depend entirely on the victim's state of mind, thereby depriving ordinary people of fair notice of what is required of them. These defects are not cured by the Government's ambiguous specific intent requirement. JUSTICE BRENNAN's position -- that § 1584 prohibits any means of coercion that actually succeeds in reducing the victim to a condition

Page 487 U. S. 933

of servitude resembling that in which antebellum slaves were held -- although theoretically narrower than the Government's interpretation, suffers from the same flaws. JUSTICE STEVENS' conclusion that Congress intended to delegate to the judiciary the task of defining "involuntary servitude" on a case-by-case basis is unsupported, and could lead to the arbitrary and unfair imposition of criminal punishment. The purposes underlying the rule of lenity for interpreting ambiguous statutory provisions are served by construing § 241 and § 1584 to prohibit only compulsion of services through physical or legal coercion. Pp. 487 U. S. 949-952.

(d) The latter construction does not imply that evidence of other means of coercion, or of extremely poor working conditions, or of the victim's special vulnerabilities, is irrelevant. The victim's vulnerabilities are relevant in determining whether the physical or legal coercion or threats thereof could plausibly have compelled the victim to serve. Moreover, a trial court could properly find that evidence of other means of coercion or of poor working conditions is relevant to corroborate disputed evidence regarding the use or threats of physical or legal coercion, the defendant's intent in using such means, or the causal effect of such conduct. Pp. 487 U. S. 952-953.

(e) Since the District Court's jury instructions encompassed means of coercion other than actual or threatened physical or legal coercion, the instructions may have caused respondents to be convicted for conduct that does not violate § 241 or § 1584. The convictions must therefore be reversed. Because the record contains sufficient evidence of physical or legal coercion to permit a conviction, however, a judgment of acquittal is unwarranted, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. P. 487 U. S. 953.

821 F.2d 1186, affirmed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and WHITE, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 487 U. S. 953. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 487 U. S. 965.

Page 487 U. S. 934

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