UNITED STATES v. BRITTON


108 U.S. 199 (1883)

UNITED STATES v. BRITTON.

Supreme Court of United States.

Decided April 2d, 1883.


Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Assistant Attorney-General Maury for the United States.

Mr. J.B. Henderson, Mr. Geo. H. Shields and Mr. Chester H. Krum for the defendants.


MR. JUSTICE WOODS delivered the opinion of the court.

The offence charged in the counts of this indictment is a conspiracy. This offence does not consist of both the conspiracy and the acts done to effect the object of the conspiracy, but of the conspiracy alone. The provision of the statute, that there must be an act done to effect the object of the conspiracy, merely affords a locus penitentiœ, so that before the act done either one or all of the parties may abandon their design, and thus avoid the penalty prescribed by the statute. It follows as a rule of criminal pleading that in an indictment for conspiracy under section 5440, the conspiracy must be sufficiently charged, and that it cannot be aided by the averments of acts done by one or more of the conspirators in furtherance of the object of the conspiracy. Reg. v. King, 7 Q.B. 782; Commonwealth v. Shedd, 7 Cush. 514.

The charge against the defendants is a conspiracy to wilfully misapply the funds of the association. It is alleged in the counts of this indictment that they, being directors, with intent to defraud the association, did conspire to wilfully misapply its moneys and funds by procuring to be declared by the association a dividend of its net profits, when there were no net profits sufficient in amount to pay it.

Such a dividend is forbidden by section 5204 of the Revised Statutes, which declares as follows:

"No association, or any member thereof, shall, during the time it shall continue its banking operations, withdraw or permit to be withdrawn, either in the form of dividends or otherwise, any portion of its capital. If losses have at any time been sustained by any such association equal to or exceeding its undivided profits then on hand, no dividend shall be made; and no dividend shall ever be made by any association while it continues its banking operations, to an amount greater than its net profits then on hand, deducting therefrom its losses and bad debts. All debts due to any association on which interest is past due and unpaid for a period of six months, unless the same are well secured and in process of collection, shall be considered bad debts within the meaning of this section."

We are, therefore, to inquire whether the conspiracy entered into by and between the defendants to misapply the moneys of the association by procuring the declaration by the association of a dividend greater than the net profits of the association is a criminal offence against the United States.

There are no common-law offences against the United States, United States v. Hudson, 7 Cranch, 32; United States v. Coolidge, 1 Wheat. 415, and section 5204 does not of itself create any offence against the United States.

But it is contended on behalf of the United States that the procuring of a dividend to be declared by the association when there are no net profits to pay it is a wilful misapplication of the moneys and funds of the association, which is made an offence by section 5209 of the Revised Statutes, and that a conspiracy to commit this offence is made punishable by section 5440.

We think this construction of the statute is unwarranted, and that the indictment is based on a misconception of its provisions.

The indictment having charged a conspiracy between the defendants to misapply the moneys of the association, proceeds to aver by what means the misapplication was to be effected, namely, by procuring to be declared by the association a dividend when there were no nets profits to pay it. If procuring the declaring of such a dividend by the association is not a wilful misapplication of its funds by these defendants, then the indictment charges no offence. The declaring of a dividend by the association when there were no net profits to pay it is, in our judgment, not a criminal misapplication of its funds. It is an act done by an officer of the association in his official and not in his individual capacity. It is, therefore, an act of maladministration and nothing more, which, while it may subject the association to a forfeiture of its charter, and the directors to a personal liability for damages suffered in consequence thereof by the association or its shareholders, does not render them liable to a criminal prosecution. The act belongs to the same class as the purchase by a banking association of its own shares when not necessary to prevent a loss on a debt due it, which, in United States v. Britton, 107 U.S. 655, we held not to be a criminal misapplication of the funds of the association. If, therefore, the indictment had charged that the defendants had misapplied the funds of the association by themselves declaring a dividend, when there were no net profits to pay it, it would not have charged a criminal act, much less when it merely charges that they conspired to procure the association to declare a dividend under like circumstances. So that it appears on the face of the indictment that the conspiracy charged was not a conspiracy to commit an offence against the United States.

We therefore answer the first branch of the fifth question propounded to us by the judges of the circuit court in the negative.

Our opinion is that under this indictment the defendants are not "liable to the penalties provided by section 5209, upon proof that they, as such directors, wilfully voted for the declaration of a dividend, knowing there were no net profits out of which to pay the same," because this is not the offence with which they are charged in the indictment. And as they are charged with a conspiracy to do an act which is not an offence, we are of opinion that no penalties could be inflicted on them under the indictment.

As the answer we have given to this question is fatal to the indictment, it is not necessary for us to answer the other questions sent to us by the judges of the circuit court.

Answer accordingly.

In case No. 410, The United States v. James H. Britton and Barton Bates, on certificate of division in opinion from the same court, the indictment contained five counts, all substantially similar to the counts in case 409, just disposed of. What we have said in reference to the indictment in case 409 applies to the indictment in this case. As the indictment is bad, and no good indictment can be framed upon the facts as they appear therein, it is unnecessary and we decline to answer the specific questions submitted to us by the judges of the circuit court. United States v. Buzzo, 18 Wall. 125.


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