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decided: December 9, 1940.



Hughes, McReynolds, Stone, Roberts, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy

Author: Stone

[ 311 U.S. Page 206]

 MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented by this record is whether one who sells materials with knowledge that they are intended for use or will be used in the production of illicit distilled spirits may be convicted as a co-conspirator with a distiller who conspired with others to distill the spirits in violation of the revenue laws.

Respondents were indicted with sixty-three others in the northern district of New York for conspiring to violate the revenue laws by the operation of twenty-two illicit stills in the vicinity of Utica, New York. The case was submitted to the jury as to twenty-four defendants, of whom the five respondents and sixteen operators of stills were convicted. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the conviction of the five respondents on the ground that as there was no evidence that respondents were themselves conspirators, the sale by them of materials, knowing that they would be used by others in illicit distilling, was not sufficient to establish that respondents were guilty of the conspiracy charged. 109 F.2d 579. We granted certiorari, 310 U.S. 620, to resolve an asserted conflict of the decision below with those of courts of appeals in other circuits. Simpson v. United States, 11 F.2d 591; Pattis v. United States, 17 F.2d 562; Borgia v. United States, 78 F.2d 550; Marino v. United States, 91 F.2d 691; see Backun v. United States, 112 F.2d 635. Compare Young v. United States, 48 F.2d 26.

All of respondents were jobbers or distributors who, during the period in question, sold sugar, yeast or cans,

[ 311 U.S. Page 207]

     some of which found their way into the possession and use of some of the distiller defendants. The indictment while charging generally that all the defendants were parties to the conspiracy did not allege specifically that any of respondents had knowledge of the conspiracy but it did allege that respondents Alberico and Nole brothers sold the materials mentioned knowing that they were to be used in illicit distilling. The court of appeals, reviewing the evidence thought, in the case of some of the respondents, that the jury might take it that they were knowingly supplying the distillers. As to Nicholas Nole, whose case it considered most doubtful, it thought that his equivocal conduct "was as likely to have come from a belief that it was a crime to sell the yeast and the cans to distillers as from being in fact any further involved in their business." But it assumed for purposes of decision that all furnished supplies which they knew ultimately reached and were used by some of the distillers. Upon this assumption it said, "In the light of all this, it is apparent that the first question is whether the seller of goods, in themselves innocent, becomes a conspirator with -- or, what is in substance the same thing, an abettor of -- the buyer because he knows that the buyer means to use the goods to commit a crime." And it concluded that merely because respondent did not forego a "normally lawful activity of the fruits of which he knew that others were making unlawful use" he is not guilty of a conspiracy.

The Government does not argue here the point which seems to be implicit in the question raised by its petition for certiorari, that conviction of conspiracy can rest on proof alone of knowingly supplying an illicit distiller, who is not conspiring with others. In such a case, as the Government concedes, the act of supplying or some other proof must import an agreement or concert of action between buyer and seller, which admittedly is not present

[ 311 U.S. Page 208]

     here. Cf. Gebardi v. United States, 287 U.S. 112, 121; Di Bonaventura v. United States, 15 F.2d 494. But the Government does contend that one who with knowledge of a conspiracy to distill illicit spirits sells materials to a conspirator knowing that they will be used in the distilling, is himself guilty of the conspiracy. It is said that he is, either because his knowledge combined with his action makes him a participant in the agreement which is the conspiracy, or what is the same thing he is a principal in the conspiracy as an aider or abettor by virtue of § 332 of the Criminal Code, 18 U. S. C. § 550, which provides: "Whoever directly commits any act constituting an offense defined in any law of the United States, or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is a principal."

The argument, the merits of which we do not consider, overlooks the fact that the opinion below proceeded on the assumption that the evidence showed only that respondents or some of them knew that the materials sold would be used in the distillation of illicit spirits, and fell short of showing respondents' participation in the conspiracy or that they knew of it. We did not bring the case here to review the evidence, but we are satisfied that the evidence on which the Government relies does not do more than show knowledge by ...

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