Johnson v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Camp Newfound Owatonna

DOCKET NO.: 96-203
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 520 US 461 (1997)
ARGUED: Feb 25, 1997
DECIDED: May 12, 1997

Michael Dreeben - for respondent
Michael R. Dreeben - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent
Wm. J. Sheppard - on behalf of the Petitioner
William J. Sheppard - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

While testifying before a federal grand jury, which was investigating the disposition of proceeds from the alleged drug trafficking of her boyfriend Earl James Fields, Joyce B. Johnson testified that she had received a box of cash that she had used to fund home improvements. Subsequently, Johnson was indicted for perjury under federal law, which proscribes "knowingly mak[ing] any false material declaration" under oath before a grand jury. Johnson did not object when the District Court judge instructed the jury that materiality was a question for him to decide, and that he had determined that her statements were material. Afterwards, Johnson was convicted of perjury. However, before her appeal, the Supreme Court handed down a precedent that a jury, rather than a trial judge, must decide the materiality of a false statement. The Court of Appeals concluded the District Court judge had erred, but that any such error did not affect "substantial rights" because its independent review of the record showed that there was overwhelming evidence of materiality and that no reasonable juror could conclude that Johnson's false statements about the money's source were not material to the grand jury's investigation.


Must criminal convictions for perjury be reversed when a trial judge fails to let the jury rule on whether the underlying statements were material?

Media for Johnson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 25, 1997 in Johnson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 12, 1997 in Johnson v. United States

The second opinion which I have to announce is number 96-203, Johnson versus the United States.

Petitioner, Joyce Johnson was convicted of perjury in the United States District Court in Florida.

On the basis of testimony she gave to a grand jury that was investigating some $10 million amassed by a cocaine trafficker, named Earl James Fields.

Johnson was Fields' long-time girlfriend who earned roughly $35,000 a year at the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

She testified before the grand jury that much of the money she had invested in her rather expensive house came from a box of cash given to her late mother.

One of the elements that the Government must prove to convict someone of perjury is that the testimony was material to the inquiry at hand.

Since the grand jury was attempting to trace money paid out by Fields, the fact that his long-time girlfriend had in all but incredible explanation for how she had gotten the money for her house was obviously relevant to the grand jury's inquiry.

At the close of Johnson's trial for perjury, the Court following the law at that time instructed the jury that whether or not Johnson's statements were material was a question for the Court to decide, not for the jury to decide.

And that he -- the judge had determined that her statements were indeed material.

Johnson didn't object to this instruction.

So the jury returned the verdict of “guilty.”

After she was convicted, but before her appeal to the Court of Appeals, we decided United States versus Gaudin, where we held that the materiality of a false statement must be submitted to the jury rather than decided by the trial judge.

On her appeal, Johnson argued that the trial judge's failure to submit the question to the jury, the question of materiality rendered her conviction invalid because of our -- Gaudin opinion.

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit rejected her claim.

There was a conflict between that opinion and the opinion of the Court Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and so we granted certiorari and we now affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Although petitioner contends otherwise, we hold that this case is governed by Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which says, “How Courts are to treat trial errors that were not objected to?” Following the test laid down in our earlier Orlando opinion, we hold that the trial court's ruling here was error, and that the error was plain, but that the error was not one which seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.

As the Court of Appeals noted, the evidence supporting materiality was overwhelming.

Petitioner's presented no plausible argument that are false statement about the source of tens of thousands of dollars she used to improve her home was not material to the grand jury investigation.

And therefore, allowing her conviction to stand as entirely consistent with the goal of fairness, integrity and the public reputation of judicial proceedings.

Indeed, it would be a reversal of this conviction which would seriously affect the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.

No miscarriage of justice will result here if we do not reverse her conviction, and we affirm it.

The opinion is unanimous except that Justice Scalia does not join certain parts of it.