1. Criminal Code § 169, declaring that whoever, without lawful
authority, shall have in possession any die in the likeness or
similitude of a die designated for making genuine coin of the
United States shall be punished, is not intended to make criminal a
possession which is not conscious and willing. P. 255 U. S.
2. A statute defining a crime in general terms should be so
construed as to avoid manifest injustice and possible
3. In appropriate, if not necessary, support of the power to
coin and regulate the value of money (Const. Art. I, § 8, cl. 5),
Congress has power to penalize the conscious and willing possession
of dies, as in Crim.Code, § 169. P. 255 U. S.
4. The clause relating to the punishment of counterfeiting
securities and coin (Const. Art. I, § 8, cl. 6) is not a limitation
upon the power to protect the coinage. Id.
The case is stated in the opinion.
MR. JUSTICE VAN DEVANTER delivered the opinion of the Court.
This is an appeal from an order denying a petition for a writ of
habeas corpus. The petitioner was indicted under
Page 255 U. S. 225
§ 169 of the Criminal Code, which declares that "whoever,
without lawful authority, shall have in his possession" any die in
the likeness or similitude of a die designated for making genuine
coin of the United States shall be punished, etc. The indictment
charged that he "willfully, knowingly," and without lawful
authority had in his possession certain dies of that description.
He entered a plea of guilty and was sentenced to pay a fine and
suffer a year's imprisonment. He made an explanatory statement to
the effect that the dies were in some junk he had purchased, and
that he did not know at the time of their presence, nor of their
coming into his possession, but, so far as appears, the statement
was made without his being under oath and with the purpose only of
inviting a lenient sentence.
Originally, the statute contained the qualifying words "with
intent to fraudulently or unlawfully use the same," c. 127, § 1, 26
Stat. 742, but they were eliminated when it was incorporated into
the Criminal Code, c. 321, 35 Stat. 1088, 1120.
The petitioner makes two contentions. One is that the statute is
repugnant to the due process of law clause of the Fifth Amendment
in that it makes criminal a having in possession which is neither
willing nor conscious. The district court, in denying the petition,
held otherwise, saying that the statute, rightly construed, means
"a willing and conscious possession," and the court added:
"Such is the possession intended by the indictment, and such is
the possession, the petitioner having pleaded guilty to the
indictment, that he must be held to have had. Otherwise he was not
guilty. He might have pleaded not guilty, and upon trial shown that
he did not know the dies were in his possession."
We think the court was right. The statute is not intended to
include and make criminal a possession which is not conscious and
willing. While its words are general,
Page 255 U. S. 226
they are to be taken in a reasonable sense, and not in one which
works manifest injustice or infringes constitutional safeguards. In
so holding, we but give effect to a cardinal rule of construction
recognized in repeated decisions of this and other courts. A
citation of three will illustrate our view. In Margate Pier Co.
3 B. & Ald. 266, 270, Abbott, C.J., quoting
from Lord Coke, said:
"Acts of Parliament . . . are to be so construed, as no man that
is innocent, or free from injury or wrong, be by a literal
construction punished or endamaged."
In United States v.
7 Wall. 482, 74 U. S. 486
this Court said:
"All laws should receive a sensible construction. General terms
should be so limited in their application as not to lead to
injustice, oppression, or an absurd consequence. It will always,
therefore, be presumed that the legislature intended exceptions to
its language which would avoid results of this character. The
reason of the law in such cases should prevail over its letter. The
common sense of man approves the judgment mentioned by Puffendorf,
that the Bolognian law which enacted 'that whoever drew blood in
the streets should be punished with the utmost severity' did not
extend to the surgeon who opened the vein of a person that fell
down in the street in a fit. The same common sense accepts the
ruling, cited by Plowden, that the statute of 1st Edward II which
enacts that a prisoner who breaks prison shall be guilty of felony
does not extend to a prisoner who breaks out when the prison is on
fire, 'for he is not to be hanged because he would not stay to be
burnt.' And in United States v. Jin Fuey Moy, 241 U. S.
, 241 U. S. 401
, we said: 'A
statute must be construed, if fairly possible, so as to avoid, not
only the conclusion that it is unconstitutional, but also grave
doubts upon that score.'"
The other contention is that the clause in the Constitution
empowering Congress "to provide for the punishment of
counterfeiting the securities and current coin of
Page 255 U. S. 227
the United States," Art. I, § 8, cl. 6, is a limitation as well
as a grant of power; that the act which the statute denounces is
not counterfeiting, and therefore that Congress cannot provide for
its punishment. The contention must be rejected. It rests on a
misconception not only of that clause, but also of the clause
investing Congress with power "to coin money" and "regulate the
value thereof." Art. I, § 8, cl. 5. Both have been considered by
this Court, and the purport of the decisions is (1) that Congress
not only may coin money in the literal sense, but also may adopt
appropriate measures, including the imposition of criminal
penalties, to maintain the coin in its purity and to safeguard the
public against spurious, simulated, and debased coin, and (2) that
the power of Congress in that regard is in no wise limited by the
clause relating to the punishment of counterfeiting.
United States v.
9 How. 560, 50 U. S.
-568; Legal Tender
12 Wall. 457, 79 U. S.
-536, 79 U. S.
-545. It hardly needs statement that, in the exertion
of this power the conscious and willing possession, without lawful
authority, of a die in the likeness or similitude of one used or
designated for making genuine coin of the United States may be made
a criminal offense. If this be not a necessary, it is at least an
appropriate, step in effectively suppressing and preventing the
making and use of illegitimate coin.
Final order affirmed.