241 U.S. 394

36 S.Ct. 658

60 L.Ed. 1061

UNITED STATES, Plff. in Err.,

No. 525.

Argued December 7, 1915.

Decided June 5, 1916.

Assistant Attorney General Wallace and Mr. W. C. Herron for plaintiff in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 395-396 intentionally omitted]

Messrs. H. Ralph Burton, Levi Cooke, George X. McLanahan, and William Strite McDowell for defendant in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 397-399 intentionally omitted]

Mr. Justice Holmes delivered the opinion of the court:


This is an indictment under § 8 of the act of December 17, 1914, chap. 1, 38 Stat. at L. 785, 789. It was quashed by the district court on the ground that the statute did not apply to the case. 225 Fed. 1003. The indictment charges a conspiracy with Willie Martin to have in Martin's possession opium and salts thereof, to wit, one dram of morphine sulphate. It alleges that Martin was not registered with the collector of internal revenue of the district, and had not paid the special tax required; that the defendant, for the purpose of executing the conspiracy, issued to Martin a written prescription for the morphine sulphate, and that he did not issue it in good faith, but knew that the drug was not given for medicinal purposes, but for the purpose of supplying one addicted to the use of opium. The question is whether the possession conspired for is within the prohibitions of the act.


The act is entitled, 'An Act to Provide for the Registration of, with Collectors of Internal Revenue, and to Impose a Special Tax Upon, All Persons Who Produce, Import, Manufacture, Compound, Deal in, Dispense, Sell, Distribute, or Give Away Opium or Coca Leaves, Their Salts, Derivatives, or Preparations, and for Other Purposes.' By § 1 the persons mentioned in the title are required to register, and to pay a special tax at the rate of $1 per annum, with certain exceptions, and it is made unlawful for the persons required to register to produce, etc., the drugs without having registered and paid the special tax. All provisions of law relating to special taxes are extended to this tax. By § 2 it is declared unlawful for any person to sell or give away the drugs mentioned without a written order, provided for, excepting deliveries by physicians, etc., or on their order, and certain other cases. Then, after provision for returns, it is made unlawful by § 4 for any person who shall not have registered and paid the special tax to send, carry, or deliver the drugs in such commerce as Congress controls, again with exceptions. By § 6 preparations containing certain small proportions of the drugs are excluded from the operation of the act, under conditions. By § 7 internal revenue tax laws are made applicable, and then comes § 8, under which the indictment is framed.


By § 8 it is declared unlawful for 'any person' who is not registered and has not paid the special tax to have in his possession or control any of the said drugs, and 'such possession or control' is made presumptive evidence of a violation of this section and of § 1. There is a proviso that the section shall not apply to any employee of a registered person and certain others, with qualifications, or to the possession of any of the drugs which have been prescribed in good faith by a physician registered under the act, and to the possession of some others. And finally it is provided that the exemptions need not be negatived in any indictment, etc., and that the burden of proving them shall be upon the defendant. The district judge considered that the act was a revenue act, and that the general words, 'any person,' must be confined to the class of persons with whom the act previously had been purporting to deal. The government, on the other hand, contends that this act was passed with two others in order to carry out the international opium convention (38 Stat. at L. 1929); that Congress gave it the appearance of a taxing measure in order to give it a coating of constitutionality, but that it really was a police measure that strained all the powers of the legislature, and that § 8 means all that it says, taking its words in their plain, literal sense.


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. United States ex rel. Atty. Gen. v. Delaware & H. Co. 213 U. S. 366, 408, 53 L. ed. 836, 849, 29 Sup. Ct. Rep. 527. If we could know judicially that no opium is produced in the United States, the difficulties in this case would be less; but we hardly are warranted in that assumption when the act itself purports to deal with those who produce it. § 1. Congress, at all events, contemplated production in the United States, and therefore the act must be construed on the hypothesis that it takes place. If opium is produced in any of the states, obviously the gravest question of power would be raised by an attempt of Congress to make possession of such opium a crime. United States v. De Witt, 9 Wall. 41, 19 L. ed. 593. The government invokes article 6 of the Constitution, that treaties made under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land. But the question arises under a statute, not under a treaty. The statute does not purport to be in execution of a treaty, but calls itself a registration and taxing act. The provision before us was not required by the opium convention, and whether this section is entitled to the supremacy claimed by the government for treaties is, to say the least, another grave question; and, if it is reasonably possible, the act should be read so as to avoid both.


The foregoing consideration gains some additional force from the penalty imposed by § 9 upon any person who violates any of the requirements of the act. It is a fine of not more than $2,000, or imprisonment for not more than five years, or both, in the discretion of the court. Only words from which there is no escape could warrant the conclusion that Congress meant to strain its powers almost if not quite to the breaking point in order to make the probably very large proportion of citizens who have some preparation of opium in their possession criminal or at least prima facie criminal, and subject to the serious punishment made possible by § 9. It may be assumed that the statute has a moral end as well as revenue in view, but we are of opinion that the district court, in treating those ends as to be reached only through a revenue measure, and within the limits of a revenue measure, was right.


Approaching the issue from this point of view we conclude that 'any person not registered' in § 8 cannot be taken to mean any person in the United States, but must be taken to refer to the class with which the statute undertakes to deal,—the persons who are required to register by § 1. It is true that the exemption of possession of drugs prescribed in good faith by a physician is a powerful argument, taken by itself, for a broader meaning. But every question of construction is unique, and an argument that would prevail in one case may be inadequate in another. This exemption emption stands alongside of one that saves employees of registered persons, as do §§ 1 and 4, and nurses under the supervision of a physician, etc., as does § 4, and is so far vague that it may have had in mind other persons carrying out a doctor's orders rather than the patients. The general purpose seems to be to apply to possession exemptions similar to those applied to registration. Even if for a moment the scope and intent of the act were lost sight of, the proviso is not enough to overcome the dominant considerations that prevail in our mind.


Judgment affirmed.


Mr. Justice Hughes and Mr. Justice Pitney dissent.

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