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GARCIA ET AL. v. UNITED STATES

decided: December 10, 1984.

GARCIA ET AL
v.
UNITED STATES



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT.

Rehnquist, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and White, Blackmun, Powell, and O'connor, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Brennan and Marshall, JJ., joined, post, p. 80.

Author: Rehnquist

[ 469 U.S. Page 71]

 JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners assaulted an undercover United States Secret Service agent with a loaded pistol, in an attempt to rob him of $1,800 of Government "flash money" that the agent was using to buy counterfeit currency from them. They were convicted of violating 18 U. S. C. § 2114, which proscribes the assault and robbery of any custodian of "mail matter or of any money or other property of the United States." The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed petitioners' convictions, over their contention that § 2114 is limited to crimes involving the Postal Service. 718 F.2d 1528 (1983). We granted certiorari, 466 U.S. 926 (1984), to resolve a split in the Circuits concerning the reach of § 2114,*fn1 and we affirm.

Agent K. David Holmes of the United States Secret Service posed as someone interested in purchasing counterfeit currency. He met petitioners Jose and Francisco Garcia in a park in Miami, Fla. Petitioners agreed to sell Holmes a large quantity of counterfeit currency, and asked that he show them the genuine currency he intended to give in exchange. He "flashed" the $1,800 of money to which he had been entrusted by the United States, and they showed him a sample of their wares -- a counterfeit $50 bill.

[ 469 U.S. Page 72]

     Wrangling over the terms of the agreement began, and Jose Garcia leapt in front of Holmes brandishing a semi-automatic pistol. He pointed the pistol at Holmes, assumed a combat stance, chambered a round into the pistol, and demanded the money. While Holmes slowly raised his hands over his head, three Secret Service agents who had been watching from afar raced to the scene on foot. Jose Garcia dropped the pistol and surrendered, but Francisco Garcia seized the money belonging to the United States and fled. The agents arrested Jose Garcia on the spot, and pursued and later arrested Francisco Garcia as well.

Petitioners were convicted in a jury trial of violating 18 U. S. C. § 2114 by assaulting a lawful custodian of Government money, Agent Holmes, with intent to "rob, steal, or purloin" the money. That section states in full:

"Whoever assaults any person having lawful charge, control, or custody of any mail matter or of any money or other property of the United States, with intent to rob, steal, or purloin such mail matter, money, or other property of the United States, or robs any such person of mail matter, or of any money, or other property of the United States, shall for the first offense, be imprisoned not more than ten years; and if in effecting or attempting to effect such robbery he wounds the person having custody of such mail, money, or other property of the United States, or puts his life in jeopardy by the use of a dangerous weapon, or for a subsequent offense, shall be imprisoned twenty-five years."

Both petitioners were sentenced to the 25-year prison term mandated by § 2114 when the assault puts the custodian's life in jeopardy by use of a dangerous weapon.*fn2 On appeal the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the judgments of conviction. The only issue before us on certiorari is whether the language "any money, or other property of the

[ 469 U.S. Page 73]

     United States" in § 2114 includes the $1,800 belonging to the United States and entrusted to Agent Holmes as "flash money" in this case.

Section 2114 prohibits the assault with intent to rob of "any person having lawful charge, control or custody of any mail matter or of any money or other property of the United States. . . ." (emphasis supplied). Petitioners contend that notwithstanding the reach of this language, Congress intended that only the robbery of "postal" money or property was to be covered by the statute.

The enacted language of the statute is contrary to petitioners' argument. The language protects custodians of any mail matter, custodians of any United States money, and, in a catchall phrase, custodians of any other United States property. As in our recent case of Lewis v. United States, 445 U.S. 55 (1980), "[nothing] on the face of the statute suggests a congressional intent to limit its coverage to persons [employed by the Postal Service]." Id., at 60.

The three classes of property protected by § 2114 are each separated by the conjunction "or." Canons of construction indicate that terms connected in the disjunctive in this manner be given separate meanings. See FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726, 739-740 (1978). In Reiter v. Sonotone Corp., 442 U.S. 330 (1979), we refused to ignore the statutory meaning which would be presumed from similar disjunctive language, stating that the use of the term "or" indicates an intent to give the nouns their separate, normal meanings. Id., at 339. In our case, Congress separated "mail matter," "money," and "other property" from one another by use of a disjunctive, and we think this means that the word "money" must be given its ordinary, separate meaning; it does not mean "postal money" or "money in the custody of postal employees."

Petitioners contend that the language of the statute is ambiguous, and in support of this contention offer what seems to us a rather labyrinthine explanation of the statutory language. Petitioners first claim that the conjunction "or"

[ 469 U.S. Page 74]

     cannot properly be read to totally separate the three types of property listed in the prohibition; for if the word "or" indeed strictly separates the three types of property, the statute would proscribe assaults on custodians of any "money," whether or not it was money belonging to the United States, because the term "money" would not be modified or restricted by the term "of the United States" which follows the word "property." Thus Congress would have enacted a law, say petitioners, proscribing assaults on custodians of money by whomever owned, and "Congress would then have enacted a Federal robbery statute without any jurisdictional basis." Reply Brief for Petitioners 3. Because Congress could not have intended this absurd result, petitioners contend, there is an ambiguity in the statutory language. This contention, however, totally ignores the word "other" which follows "money" and shows that the money referred to, like the property referred to, is money belonging to the United States.

Petitioners then develop their argument by invoking the principle of ejusdem generis to resolve the ambiguity which their analysis creates. Under that principle, of course, where general words follow an enumeration of specific terms, the general words are read to apply only to other items like those specifically enumerated. See Harrison v. PPG Industries, Inc., 446 U.S. 578, 588 (1980). Petitioners thus urge that "mail matter" is a specific term, and therefore the general terms "money" and "other property" which follow it must be read in the specific, restricted postal context. They conclude that "money" was intended to mean "postal money" and "other property of the United States" was intended to mean "other postal property."

We said in Harrison that ""the rule of ejusdem generis, while firmly established, is only an instrumentality for ascertaining the correct meaning of words when there is uncertainty."'" Ibid., quoting United States v. Powell, 423 U.S. 87, 91 (1975), in turn quoting Gooch v. United States, 297 U.S. 124, 128 (1936).

[ 469 U.S. Page 75]

     We are not persuaded that petitioners' analysis of the statutory language creates any ambiguity in the plain meaning of the words, and even if it did we do not think that the particular language here lends itself to the application of the ejusdem generis rule. We have previously noted that the terms in question are made separate and distinct from one another by Congress' use of the disjunctive; in addition, the term "mail matter" is no more specific a term -- and is probably less specific -- than "money."

Notwithstanding petitioners' argument to the contrary, we are satisfied that the statutory language with which we deal has a plain and unambiguous meaning. While we now turn to the legislative history as an additional tool of analysis, we do so with the recognition that only the most extraordinary showing of contrary intentions from those data would justify a limitation on the "plain meaning" of the statutory language. When we find the terms of a statute unambiguous, judicial inquiry is complete, except in "'rare and exceptional circumstances,'" TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153, 187, n. 33 (1978), quoting Crooks v. Harrelson, 282 U.S. 55, 60 (1930).

Section 2114 had its genesis as a law to protect mail carriers from assault and robbery of mail matter. The forerunner to § 2114 was 18 U. S. C. § 320 (1934 ed., Supp. V). It proscribed assault and robbery of "any person having lawful charge, control, or custody of any mail matter." Section 320 had been placed in Chapter 8 of Title 18 of the United States Code. Chapter 8 was entitled "Offenses Against Postal Service." In 1935, however, the 74th Congress amended § 320 by appending after the term "mail matter" the clause "or of any money or other property of the United States." Section 320 as amended retained its place in Chapter 8 of Title 18 until 1948, when it was transferred to Chapter 103, which is entitled "Robbery and Burglary" and ...


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