Pollock v. Williams
322 U.S. 4 (1944)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Pollock v. Williams, 322 U.S. 4 (1944)

Pollock v. Williams

No. 345

Argued February 10, 1944

Decided April 10, 1944

322 U.S. 4



1. A statute of Florida which makes guilty of a misdemeanor any person who, with intent to defraud, obtains an advance upon an agreement to render services, and which provides further that failure to perform the services for which an advance was obtained shall be prima facie evidence of intent to defraud, held violative of the Thirteenth Amendment and the federal Anti-peonage Act. Pp. 322 U. S. 5, 322 U. S. 17.

2. In view of the history and operation of the Florida statute, it cannot be said that a plea of guilty is uninfluenced by the statute's threat to convict by its prima facie evidence section; hence, the entire statute is invalid, and a conviction under it, though based upon a plea of guilty, cannot be sustained. P. 322 U. S. 15.

3. That, upon a trial of the defendant, his testimony in respect of his intent would have been competent is immaterial. P. 322 U. S. 25.

153 Fla. 338, 14 So.2d 700, reversed.

Page 322 U. S. 5

Appeal from the reversal of a judgment which, upon a writ of habeas corpus, discharged the prisoner, appellant here.

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellant Pollock questions the validity of a statute of the State of Florida making it a misdemeanor to induce advances with intent to defraud by a promise to perform labor and further making failure to perform labor for which money has been obtained prima facie evidence of intent to defraud. [Footnote 1] It conflicts, he says, with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, and with the anti-peonage statute enacted by Congress thereunder. Claims also are made under the due process and equal

Page 322 U. S. 6

protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment which we find it unnecessary to consider.

Pollock was arrested January 5, 1943, on a warrant issued three days before which charged that, on the 17th of October, 1942, he did,

"with intent to injure and defraud under and by reason of a contract and promise to perform labor and service, procure and obtain money, to-wit: the sum of $5.00, as advances from one J. V. O'Albora, a corporation, contrary to the statute in such cases made and provided, and against the peace and dignity of the State of Florida."

He was taken before the county judge on the same day, entered a plea of guilty, and was sentenced to pay a fine of $100 and, in default, to serve sixty days in the county jail. He was immediately committed.

On January 11, 1943, a writ of habeas corpus was issued by the judge of the circuit court, directed to the jail keeper, who is appellee here. Petition for the writ challenged the constitutionality of the statutes under which Pollock was confined, and set forth that,

"at the trial aforesaid, he was not told that he was entitled to counsel, and that counsel would be provided for him if he wished, and he did not know that he had such right. Petitioner was without funds and unable to employ counsel. He further avers that he did not understand the nature of the charge against him, but understood that, if he owed any money to his prior employer and had quit his employment without paying the same, he was guilty, which facts he admitted."

The Sheriff's return makes no denial of these allegations, but merely sets forth that he holds the prisoner by virtue of the commitment "based upon the judgment and conviction as set forth in the petition." The Supreme Court of Florida has said that "undenied allegations of the petition are taken as true." [Footnote 2]

Page 322 U. S. 7

The Circuit Court held the statutes under which the case was prosecuted to be unconstitutional, and discharged the prisoner. The Supreme Court of Florida reversed. [Footnote 3] It read our decisions in Bailey v. Alabama [Footnote 4] and Taylor v. Georgia [Footnote 5] to hold that similar laws are not in conflict with the Constitution insofar as they denounce the crime, but only in declaring the prima facie evidence rule. It stated that its first impression was that the entire Florida act would fall, as did that of Georgia, but, on reflection, it concluded that our decisions were called forth by operation of the presumption, and did not condemn the substantive part of the statute where the presumption was not brought into play. As the prisoner had pleaded guilty, the Florida court thought the presumption had played no part in this case, and therefore remanded the prisoner to custody. An appeal to this Court was taken, and probable jurisdiction noted. [Footnote 6]

Florida advances no argument that the presumption section of this statute is constitutional, nor could it plausibly do so in view of our decisions. It contends, however, (1) that we can give no consideration to the presumption section, because it was not in fact brought into play in the case, by reason of the plea of guilty; (2) that, so severed, the section denouncing the crime is constitutional.


These issues emerge from an historical background against which the Florida legislation in question must be appraised.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, made in 1865, declares that involuntary servitude

Page 322 U. S. 8

shall not exist within the United States, and gives Congress power to enforce the article by appropriate legislation. [Footnote 7] Congress, on March 2, 1867, enacted that all laws or usages of any state

"by virtue of which any attempt shall hereafter be made to establish, maintain, or enforce, directly or indirectly, the voluntary or involuntary service or labor of any persons as peons, in liquidation of any debt or obligation, or otherwise"

are null and void, and denounced it as a crime to hold, arrest, or return a person to the condition of peonage. [Footnote 8] Congress thus raised both a shield and a sword against forced labor because of debt.

Clyatt v. United States was a case from Florida in which the Federal Act was used as a sword and an employer

Page 322 U. S. 9

convicted under it. This Court sustained it as constitutional, and said of peonage:

"It may be defined as a status or condition of compulsory service based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master. The basal fact is indebtedness. . . . Peonage is sometimes classified as voluntary or involuntary, but this implies simply a difference in the mode of origin, but none in the character of the servitude. The one exists where the debtor voluntarily contracts to enter the service of his creditor. The other is forced upon the debtor by some provision of law. . . . A clear distinction exists between peonage and the voluntary performance of labor or rendering of services in payment of a debt. In the latter case, the debtor, though contracting to pay his indebtedness by labor or service, and subject, like any other contractor, to an action for damages for breach of that contract, can elect at any time to break it, and no law or force compels performance or a continuance of the service. [Footnote 9]"

Then came the twice-considered case of Bailey v. Alabama, [Footnote 10] in which the Act and the Constitution were raised as a shield against conviction of a laborer under an Alabama act substantially the same as the one before us now. Bailey, a Negro, had obtained $15 from a corporation on a written agreement to work for a year at $12 per month, $10.75 to be paid him and $1.25 per month to apply on his debt. In about a month, he quit. He was convicted, fined $30, or, in default, sentenced to hard labor for 20 days in lieu of the fine and 116 days on account of costs. The Court considered that the portion of the state law defining the crime would require proof of intent to defraud, and so did not strike down that part; nor was it expressly sustained, nor was it necessarily reached, for the prima facie evidence provision had been used to obtain a conviction.

Page 322 U. S. 10

This Court held the presumption, in such a context, to be unconstitutional.

Later came United States v. Reynolds and United States v. Broughton, [Footnote 11] in which the Act of 1867 was sword again. Reynolds and Broughton were indicted under it. The Alabama Code authorized one under some circumstances to become surety for a convict, pay his fine, and be reimbursed by labor. Reynolds and Broughton each got himself a convict to work out fines and costs as a farmhand at $6.00 per month. After a time, each convict refused to labor further, and, under the statute, each was convicted for the refusal. This Court said, "[t]hus, under pain of recurring prosecutions, the convict may be kept at labor to satisfy the demands of his employer." It held the Alabama statute unconstitutional, and employers under it subject to prosecution.

In Taylor v. Georgia, [Footnote 12] the Federal Act was again applied as a shield, against conviction by resort to the presumption, of a Negro laborer, under a Georgia statute in effect like the one before us now. We made no effort to separate valid from invalid elements in the statute, although the substantive and procedural provisions were, as here, in separate, and separately numbered, sections. We said,

"We think that the sections of the Georgia Code upon which this conviction rests are repugnant to the Thirteenth Amendment and to the Act of 1867, and that the conviction must therefore be reversed."

Only recently, in a case from Northern Florida, a creditor employer was indicted under the Federal Act for arresting a debtor to peonage, and we sustained the indictment. United States v. Gaskin. [Footnote 13]

These cases, decided by this Court under the Act of 1867, came either from Florida or one of the adjoining states.

Page 322 U. S. 11

And these were but a part of the stir caused by the Federal Anti-peonage Act and its enforcement in this same region. [Footnote 14] This is not to intimate that this section, more than others, was sympathetic with peonage, for this evil has never had general approval anywhere, and its sporadic appearances have been neither sectional nor racial. It is mentioned, however, to indicate that the Legislature of Florida acted with almost certain knowledge in designing its successive "labor fraud" acts in relation to our series of peonage decisions. The present Act is the latest of a lineage, in which its antecedents were obviously associated with the practice of peonage. This history throws some light on whether the present state act is one "by virtue of which any attempt shall hereafter be made" to "enforce involuntary servitude," in which event the Federal Act declares it void.

In 1891, the Legislature created an offense of two elements: obtaining money or property upon a false promise to perform service, and abandonment of service without just cause and without restitution of what had been obtained. [Footnote 15] In 1905, this Court decided Clyatt v. United States, indicating that any person, including public officers,

Page 322 U. S. 12

even if acting under state law, might be guilty of violating the Federal Act. In 1907, the Florida Legislature enacted a new statute, nearly identical in terms with that of Alabama. [Footnote 16] In 1911, in Bailey v. Alabama, this Court held such an act unconstitutional. In 1913, the Florida Legislature repealed the 1907 act, but reenacted in substance the section denouncing the crime, omitting the presumption of intent from the failure to perform the service or make restitution. [Footnote 17] In 1919, the Florida Supreme Court

Page 322 U. S. 13

held this act, standing alone, void under the authority of Bailey v. Alabama. [Footnote 18] Whereupon, at the session of 1919, the present statute was enacted, including the prima facie evidence provisions, notwithstanding these decisions by the Supreme Court of Florida and by this Court. The Supreme Court of Florida later upheld a conviction under this statute on a plea of guilty, but declined to pass on the presumption section because, as in the present case, the plea of guilty was thought to make its consideration unnecessary. [Footnote 19] The statute was reenacted without substantial change in 1941. Again, in 1943, it was reenacted despite the fact that, the year before, we held a very similar Georgia statute unconstitutional in its entirety. [Footnote 20]


The State contends that we must exclude the prima facie evidence provision from consideration because, in fact, it played no part in producing this conviction. Such was the holding of the State Supreme Court. We are not concluded by that holding, however, but, under the circumstances, are authorized to make an independent determination. [Footnote 21]

Page 322 U. S. 14

What the prisoner actually did that constituted the crime cannot be gleaned from the record. The charge is cast in the words of the statute, and is largely a conclusion. It affords no information except that Pollock obtained $5 from a corporation in connection with a promise to work which he failed to perform, and that his doing so was fraudulent. If the conclusion that the prisoner acted with intent to defraud rests on facts, and not on the prima facie evidence provisions of the statute, none is stated in the warrant or appears in the record. None was so set forth that he could deny it. He obtained the money on the 14th of October, 1942, and the warrant was not sought until January 2, 1943. Whether the original advancement was more or less than $5, what he represented or promised in obtaining it, whether he worked a time and quit, or whether he never began work at all, are undisclosed. About all that appears is that he obtained an advancement of $5 from a corporation and failed to keep his agreement to work it out. He admitted those facts, and the law purported to supply the element of intent. He admitted the conclusion of guilt which the statute

Page 322 U. S. 15

made prima facie thereon. He was fined $20 for each dollar of his debt, and, in default of payment, was required to atone for it by serving time at the rate of less than 9

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