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decided: January 19, 1948.



Vinson, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Jackson, Rutledge, Burton

Author: Black

[ 332 U.S. Page 690]

 MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent, a retail druggist in Columbus, Georgia, was charged in two counts of an information with a violation of § 301 (k) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. That section prohibits "the doing of any . . . act with respect to, a . . . drug . . . if such act is done while such article is held for sale after shipment in interstate commerce and results in such article being misbranded."*fn1 Section 502 (f) of the Act declares a drug

[ 332 U.S. Page 691]

     "to be misbranded . . . unless its labeling bears (1) adequate directions for use; and (2) such adequate warnings against use . . . dangerous to health, or against unsafe dosage . . . as are necessary for the protection of users." The information charged specifically that the respondent had performed certain acts which resulted in sulfathiazole being "misbranded" while "held for sale after shipment in interstate commerce."

The facts alleged were these: A laboratory had shipped in interstate commerce from Chicago, Illinois, to a consignee at Atlanta, Georgia, a number of bottles, each containing 1,000 sulfathiazole tablets. These bottles had labels affixed to them, which, as required by § 502 (f) (1) and (2) of the Act, set out adequate directions for the use of the tablets and adequate warnings to protect ultimate consumers from dangers incident to this use.*fn2 Respondent bought one of these properly labeled bottles of sulfathiazole tablets from the Atlanta consignee, transferred it to his Columbus, Georgia, drugstore, and there held the tablets for resale. On two separate occasions

[ 332 U.S. Page 692]

     twelve tablets were removed from the properly labeled and branded bottle, placed in pill boxes, and sold to customers. These boxes were labeled "sulfathiazole." They did not contain the statutorily required adequate directions for use or warnings of danger.

Respondent's motion to dismiss the information was overruled, a jury was waived, evidence was heard, and respondent was convicted under both counts. 67 F.Supp. 192.

The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. 161 F.2d 629. The court thought that as a result of respondent's action the sulfathiazole became "misbranded" within the meaning of the Federal Act, and that in its "broadest possible sense" the Act's language "may include what happened." However, it was also of the opinion that the Act ought not to be taken so broadly "but held to apply only to the holding for the first sale by the importer after interstate shipment." Thus the Circuit Court of Appeals interpreted the statutory language of § 301 (k) "while such article is held for sale after shipment in interstate commerce" as though Congress had said "while such article is held for sale by a person who had himself received it by way of a shipment in interstate commerce." We granted certiorari to review this important question concerning the Act's coverage. 332 U.S. 753.

First. The narrow construction given § 301 (k) rested not so much upon its language as upon the Circuit Court's view of the consequences that might result from the broader interpretation urged by the Government. The court pointed out that the retail sales here involved were made in Columbus nine months after this sulfathiazole had been shipped from Chicago to Atlanta. It was impressed by the fact that, if the statutory language "while such article is held for sale after shipment in interstate commerce" should be given its literal meaning, the criminal provisions relied on would "apply to all intrastate

[ 332 U.S. Page 693]

     sales of imported drugs after any number of intermediate sales within the State and after any lapse of time; and not only to such sales of drugs, but also to similar retail sales of foods, devices and cosmetics, for all these are equally covered by these provisions of the Act." The court emphasized that such consequences would result in far-reaching inroads upon customary control by local authorities of traditionally local activities, and that a purpose to afford local retail purchasers federal protection from harmful foods, drugs and cosmetics should not be ascribed to Congress in the absence of an exceptionally clear mandate, citing Federal Trade Commission v. Bunte Bros., 312 U.S. 349. Another reason of the court for refraining from construing the Act as applicable to articles misbranded while held for retail sale, even though the articles had previously been shipped in interstate commerce, was its opinion that such a construction would raise grave doubts as to the Act's constitutionality. In support of this position the court cited Labor Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1, 30, and Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495.

[ 332 U.S. Page 694]

     A restrictive interpretation should not be given a statute merely because Congress has chosen to depart from custom or because giving effect to the express language employed by Congress might require a court to face a constitutional question. And none of the foregoing cases, nor any other on which they relied, authorizes a court in interpreting a statute to depart from its clear meaning. When it is reasonably plain that Congress meant its Act to prohibit certain conduct, no one of the above references justifies a distortion of the congressional purpose, not even if the clearly correct purpose makes marked deviations from custom or leads inevitably to a holding of constitutional invalidity. Although criminal statutes must be so precise and unambiguous that the ordinary person can know how to avoid unlawful conduct, see Kraus & Bros., Page 694} Inc. v. United States, 327 U.S. 614, 621-622, even in determining whether such statutes meet that test, they should be given their fair meaning in accord with the evident intent of Congress. United States v. Raynor, 302 U.S. 540, 552.

Second. Another consideration that moved the Circuit Court of Appeals to give the statute a narrow construction was its belief that the holding in this case with reference to misbranding of drugs by a retail druggist would necessarily apply also to "similar retail sales of foods, devices and cosmetics, for all of these," the court said, "are equally covered by the same provisions of the Act." And in this Court the effect of such a possible coverage of the Act is graphically magnified. We are told that its application to these local sales of sulfathiazole would logically require all retail grocers and beauty parlor operators to reproduce the bulk container labels on each individual item when it is taken from the container to sell to a purchaser. It is even prophesied that, if § 301 (k) is given the interpretation urged by the Government, it will later be applied so as to require retail merchants to label sticks of candy and sardines when removed from their containers for sale.

The scope of the offense which Congress defined is not to be judicially narrowed as applied to drugs by envisioning extreme possible applications of its different misbranding provisions which relate to food, cosmetics, and the like. There will be opportunity enough to consider such contingencies should they ever arise. It may now be noted, however, that the Administrator of the Act is given rather broad discretion -- broad enough undoubtedly to enable him to perform his duties fairly without wasting his efforts on what may be no more than technical infractions of law. As an illustration of the Administrator's discretion, § 306 permits him to excuse minor violations with a warning if he believes that the public interest will thereby be adequately

[ 332 U.S. Page 695]

     served. And the Administrator is given extensive authority under §§ 405, 503 and 603 to issue regulations exempting from the labeling requirements many articles that otherwise would fall within this portion of the Act. The provisions of § 405 with regard to food apparently are broad enough to permit the relaxation of some of the labeling requirements which might otherwise impose a burden on retailers out of proportion to their value to the consumer.

Third. When we seek the meaning of § 301 (k) from its language we find that the offense it creates and which is here charged requires the doing of some act with respect to a drug (1) which results in its being misbranded, (2) while the article is held for sale "after shipment in interstate commerce." Respondent has not seriously contended that the "misbranded" portion of § 301 (k) is ambiguous. Section 502 (f), as has been seen, provides that a drug is misbranded unless the labeling contains adequate directions and adequate warnings. The labeling here did not contain the information which § 502 (f) requires. There is a suggestion here that, although alteration, mutilation, destruction, or obliteration of the bottle label would have been a "misbranding," transferring the pills to non-branded boxes would not have been, so long as the labeling on the empty bottle was not disturbed. Such an argument cannot be sustained. For the chief purpose of forbidding the destruction of the label is to keep it intact for the information and protection of the consumer. That ...

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