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GARCIA ET AL. v. UNITED STATES

SUPREME COURT OF THE 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 contains all of the federal statutes covering those crimes. Act of June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 797. Section 320 was then renumbered as § 2114; with the exception of minor particulars

[ 469 U.S. Page 76]

     the text of the statute has remained unchanged since the 1935 amendment.

Petitioners contend that the 1935 amendment to § 320 was not intended to expand the reach of that statute beyond postal crimes. In support of this they rely on some short colloquies from the House floor which they describe as "snippets."

In surveying legislative history we have repeatedly stated that the authoritative source for finding the Legislature's intent lies in the Committee Reports on the bill, which "[represent] the considered and collective understanding of those Congressmen involved in drafting and studying proposed legislation." Zuber v. Allen, 396 U.S. 168, 186 (1969). We have eschewed reliance on the passing comments of one Member, Weinberger v. Rossi, 456 U.S. 25, 35 (1982), and casual statements from the floor debates. United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 385 (1968); Consumer Product Safety Comm'n v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102, 108 (1980). In O'Brien, supra, at 385, we stated that Committee Reports are "more authoritative" than comments from the floor, and we expressed a similar preference in Zuber, supra, at 187.*fn3

The Committee Reports on this bill show no intent on the part of the 74th Congress to limit the amended § 320 to less than the normal reach of its words. The House Report on the bill to amend § 320 is entitled "SAFEGUARDING CUSTODIANS OF GOVERNMENT MONEYS AND PROPERTY" and states that "[the] purpose of the pending

[ 469 U.S. Page 77]

     bill is to bring within the provisions of the Penal Code the crime of robbing or attempting to rob custodians of Government moneys." H. R. Rep. No. 582, 74th Cong., 1st Sess., 1 (1935). The Senate Report on the 1935 amendment is entitled "PROVIDING FOR PUNISHMENT FOR THE CRIME OF ROBBING OR ATTEMPTING TO ROB CUSTODIANS OF GOVERNMENT MONEYS OR PROPERTY," and the Senate Report states the purpose of the bill exactly like the House Report. S. Rep. No. 1440, 74th Cong., 1st Sess., 1 (1935). Nowhere do the Committee Reports state that the amended statute required a "postal nexus" or was limited to postal crimes.

Petitioners make a good deal of the fact that both Reports contain the letter from the Postmaster General, requesting enactment of the bill. That official's letter, however, says nothing about limiting the broad language of the bill to postal crimes, but instead speaks simply of "[custodians] of Government funds," not of Government "mail." H. R. Rep. No. 582, supra, at 1; S. Rep. No. 1440, supra, at 1. In two places the Postmaster General's letter states that the bill was designed to punish the crime of "robbing or attempting to rob custodians of Government moneys." Ibid. Thus the Committee Reports show that the Postmaster, and the two Committees responsible for the legislation, gave no evidence of their belief that the statute was limited to postal crimes.

Petitioners rely heavily on the statement of Representative Dobbins, whom the dissent identifies as the floor manager, made on the floor of the House of Representatives on May 24, 1935. Representative Dobbins stated:

"The only purpose of the pending bill is to extend the protection of the present law to property of the United States in the custody of its postal officials. . . . [Let] me say there are many custodians of postal stations who have a great amount of money in their custody but little mail. . . ." 79 Cong. Rec. 8205 (1935).

[ 469 U.S. Page 78]

     We find a number of flaws in petitioners' argument that Representative Dobbins' statement is clear proof of Congress' intent. First, this snippet quotes Representative Dobbins out of context. The above-quoted statement was made in response to an objection from another Member concerning the mandatory 25-year penalty in the proposed statute. As one in favor of the bill, Representative Dobbins' attempt to limit the scope of the statute is best read in light of this objection. See ibid. To permit such colloquies to alter the clear language of the statute undermines the intent of Congress. Regan v. Wald, 468 U.S. 222, 237 (1984). See Russello v. United States, 464 U.S. 16 (1983). Isolated statements such as Representative Dobbins' are "not impressive legislative history." Zuber, supra, at 187. If they were, a statement of Representative Wolcott earlier in the same colloquy to the effect that "[this] bill is confined to assaults on Federal law-enforcement officers," 79 Cong. Rec., at 8205, would seem to counterbalance the import of Representative Dobbins' statement. Thus petitioners would lose even if we were to adopt some type of reverse parol evidence rule, where oral statements were elevated above enacted language in determining the meaning of the statute.

We think probably the strongest argument that may be made for limitation on the coverage of § 2114, although petitioners do not themselves make it as such, is that set forth in the opinion of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in United States v. Reid, 517 F.2d 953 (1975), and amplified by our dissenting colleagues today. This argument is certainly not without persuasive power, and it would perhaps be controlling if there were substantial ambiguity in the language Congress had enacted. But there is no such ambiguity. We are not willing to narrow the plain meaning of even a criminal statute on the basis of a gestalt judgment as to what Congress probably intended.

As a final argument petitioners assert that they are vindicated by the Solicitor General's earlier stipulation in United

[ 469 U.S. Page 79]

     selected language that penalized assaults or robberies of anyone who is a custodian of "any money or other property of the United States." It is beyond question that by using a pistol in an effort to rob Agent Holmes, petitioners fell squarely within the prohibitions of the statute.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is therefore affirmed.

It is so ordered.

Disposition

718 F.2d 1528, affirmed.

JUSTICE STEVENS, with whom JUSTICE BRENNAN and JUSTICE MARSHALL join, dissenting.

When the literal application of a statute would produce a result "demonstrably at odds with the intentions of its drafters," the actual legislative intent must control our disposition. See Griffin v. Oceanic Contractors, Inc., 458 U.S. 564, 571 (1982). I believe a similar rule should apply to the literal application of a federal criminal statute that is dramatically broader than the coverage that its draftsmen intended.

I

A fair reading of the entire history of 18 U. S. C. § 2114 convinces me that Congress never intended it to apply outside of the postal context. As the Court correctly notes, ante, at 75, § 2114 "had its genesis as a law to protect mail carriers from assault and robbery of mail matter." The deterrent purpose of such a law justifies the imposition of especially severe sanctions. For that reason, heavy penalties have always been authorized, and sometimes mandated, for assaults upon mail carriers.

The Second Congress, recognizing the importance of the delivery of the mails, enacted the earliest predecessor to § 2114 in 1792. That enactment, entitled "An Act to establish the Post-Office and Post Roads within the United States,"*fn1 stated in part that death was the penalty for any

[ 469 U.S. Page 81]

     person who robbed "any carrier of the mail of the United States."*fn2 The penalty for robbery of a carrier of the mail remained the same when the Third Congress passed the Act of May 8, 1794.*fn3 Almost three years later, Congress made aiding and abetting the robbery of a mail carrier an offense also subject to a penalty of death.*fn4

Repeatedly in subsequent years Congress enacted special legislation dealing with mail-robbery offenses. Such statutes were enacted in 1799,*fn5 1810,*fn6 1825,*fn7 1872,*fn8 and

[ 469 U.S. Page 821909]

     .*fn9 In the 1909 statute, Congress established a mandatory minimum sentence of incarceration of 25 years for attempted robbery if the mail carrier was wounded or had his life put in danger. As it had done consistently for over a century, Congress thus ensured that the law would provide special protection for a person within the postal setting by making it clear that a crime upon such a person was an unusually serious matter, not only because it was a federal offense, but also because of the severity of the mandated penalty.*fn10

[ 469 U.S. Page 83]

     The history through the 1909 codification and in the immediate years thereafter unequivocally demonstrates that § 2114's predecessors were always intended for postal offenses. This case, of course, involves an interpretation of the amendment of § 320 of Title 18 that Congress adopted in 1935. The question is whether Congress intended to abandon the postal nexus that had characterized this legislation throughout its long history.

II

A review of the circumstances leading to the 1935 amendment persuades me that Congress merely intended to broaden the protection of postal workers. In 1934 two bills containing the amendatory language that was enacted in the following year were introduced in the House of Representatives and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.*fn11 Neither of those bills was reported out of that Committee which, of course, is the Committee that would normally process a significant change in the general coverage of the Criminal Code. In 1935, the highest postal official, the Postmaster General, wrote a letter to Representative James M. Mead, Chairman of the House Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads, requesting an amendment to cover assaults

[ 469 U.S. Page 84]

     on custodians of Government funds.*fn12 In both the House and the Senate it was the Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads that processed the requested legislation. See H. R. Rep. No. 582, 74th Cong., 1st Sess. (1935); S. Rep. No. 1440, 74th Cong., 1st Sess. (1935).

The 1935 amendment that was referred to the House Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads was a non-controversial measure that Congressman Dobbins, a Member of that Committee, managed on the floor of the House. In response to a query, he stated that "[the] only purpose of

[ 469 U.S. Page 85]

     the pending bill is to extend the protection of the present law to property of the United States in the custody of its postal officials, the same as it now extends that protection to mail matter in the custody of its postal officials."*fn13 When a

[ 469 U.S. Page 86]

     relatively minor piece of legislation of this sort is processed with almost no debate on the floor of either House, the unambiguous comment of a spokesman for the Committee that reported the bill is particularly illuminating. In my opinion it is entitled to greater weight than a general statement in the Committee Reports that is little more than a paraphrase of the statutory language itself.

As Judge Friendly succinctly wrote in United States v. Reid, 517 F.2d 953 (CA2 1975):

"[The] 1935 amendment was to a statute which stood in the chapter of the Criminal Code dealing with offenses against the postal service. No Congressman could have supposed that, in passing an amendment to that section proposed by the Postmaster General and recommended by the committees dealing with the postal service, he was creating a new crime with respect to government property generally." Id., at 957, n. 3a.

III

Even after Congress enacted the 1935 amendment, thus structuring the statute to read*fn14 in much the same form as it

[ 469 U.S. Page 87]

     exists today, the statute remained in the chapter dealing with crimes against the Postal Service until the general revision of the Judicial Code in 1948. No one contends that the 1948 revision changed the meaning of the statute.*fn15

Apparently it never occurred to any federal prosecutor that this statute had any application outside the postal context until several decades after it was amended.*fn16 Indeed, in 1973, when the question was first considered at the top executive level of the Department of Justice in United States v. Hanahan, 442 F.2d 649 (CA7 1971), vacated and remanded, 414 U.S. 807 (1973), Solicitor General Bork carefully examined the question, concluding that it covered only postal crimes. The Solicitor General's explanation of that conclusion merits quotation:

"In 1935 Congress added the more encompassing phrase 'money or other property of the United States.' On its face the statute covers the crime for which petitioner was convicted, as one involving a 'person having lawful charge, control, or custody of any . . . money or other property of the United States. . . . We agree with petitioner, however, that the legislative history plainly shows that the statute was intended to apply only to postal crimes.

"The bill amending the statute was designed to remedy the anomalous situation which existed under the old statute. Before the amendments the statute imposed a severe penalty on one who robbed mail matter from the Postal Office but imposed no penalty on one who

[ 469 U.S. Page 88]

     robbed money or other valuable property from the Post Office. . . .

"The change in the law had been advocated by the Post Office Department and only that Department submitted a report on the bill to the House and Senate Committees on Post Office and Post Roads. . . . We therefore concede that Section 2114, as amended, was designed only to cover robberies of post offices or postal employees."*fn17

IV

Even if I am correct in my appraisal of the actual intent of Congress, it is arguable that the statutory language is sufficiently plain that it should nevertheless be given effect. There are, however, three special concerns that lead me to the contrary conclusion.

First is the relationship between this statute and other parts of the Criminal Code. The general statute proscribing thefts of Government property, 18 U. S. C. § 2112, carries a lesser penalty even if violence accompanies the theft.*fn18 The more severe penalty in § 2114 is only explicable if we assume that Congress wanted to provide a special deterrent to crimes against an identifiable class of federal employees. Moreover, that special deterrent is consistent with the congressional decision in 1868 that mail carriers should wear special uniforms that the Postmaster General prescribed. See Act of July 27, 1868, ch. 246, § 20, 15 Stat. 197. Robbery of a uniformed postal worker fits squarely into the rationale for § 2114. The assault in this case, however, was upon an undercover agent not known to have any connection with

[ 469 U.S. Page 89]

     the Federal Government. This type of robbery is not appropriately prosecuted under § 2114.*fn19

Second, the severity of the mandatory minimum sentences -- 10 years if no actual or threatened violence is involved and 25 years in a case of this kind -- is rather plainly disproportionate to the offense if it covers every conceivable theft of Government property -- even the attempted robbery of a Government-owned hammer.*fn20 The Government responds by noting that it is for Congress to decide if a penalty is too harsh.*fn21 This is quite true. But this response identifies my final -- and most important -- concern.

It is Congress, rather than the Executive, that must define the dimensions of the federal law enforcement program. Law enforcement remains, and should remain, the primary responsibility of the several States. Every increase in the power of the federal prosecutor moves us a step closer to a national police force with its attendant threats to individual liberty. For that reason, I believe we have a special obligation to make sure that Congress intended to authorize a novel assertion of federal criminal jurisdiction. Cf. Bell v. United States, 462 U.S. 356, 363 (1983) (STEVENS, J., dissenting); McElroy v. United States, 455 U.S. 642, 675 (1982) (STEVENS, J., dissenting); United States v. Altobella, 442 F.2d 310, 316 (CA7 1971).

[ 469 U.S. Page 90]

     There is, of course, no doubt that Congress has the authority to enact a law with the meaning the Court finds in § 2114 today. I am not, however, convinced that Congress actually intended to do so. I therefore respectfully dissent.


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