United States v. Dege

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: Fleetwood Paving Co.

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1958-1962)

CITATION: 364 US 51 (1960)
ARGUED: Oct 20, 1959
DECIDED: Jun 27, 1960

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Dege

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 20, 1959 in United States v. Dege

Earl Warren:

Number 14, United States of America, Appellant, versus Lucille Aldine Dege.

Mr. Feit.

Jerome M. Feit:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This case is here on direct appeal from an order of the District Court for the Southern District of California, dismissing an indictment which charged appellees, who are husband and wife, with conspiracy to smuggle psittacine bird into this country from Mexico.

The single issue on this appeal is whether or not husband and wife can conspire under the federal conspiracy statute.

There is no additional evidentiary question as to whether one spouse may testify against the other nor as to whether confidential communications between husband and wife may be revealed, solely whether husband and wife are two separate individuals within the purview of a federal statute.

The court below relying upon the ancient notion of marital unity found that husband and wife were not two persons but one and on this basis, dismissed the indictment.

We think that ruling was incorrect.

The federal conspiracy statute 18 U.S.C. 371 which is set forth at page 2 of our main brief punishes conspiracy between two or more persons.

There is no limitation in that statute which says, "Two or more persons except if they're husband and wife."

In present day terms it is clear, we think, that husband and wife are legally separate individuals.

Plus in old states under the married women statutes, she may own her property separate and apart from her husband.

She may sue and be sued in tort and in contract.

She may contract with third parties.

Her citizenship does not follow that of her husband and quite significantly, we think, in the overwhelming majority of jurisdiction she is deemed a separate legal person who can civilly contract with her husband.

In our view, if man and wife are two separate individuals, two separate persons, for the purpose of contractual capacity, we certainly think that they are within reach and are two separate persons under the federal conspiracy statute.

What impact does that do you think that this Court's decision (Inaudible)

Jerome M. Feit:

Mr. Justice Harlan, I have read the Hawkins the decision.

It deals with a rule of evidence which is based upon the notion, the present day notion that in order to protect the domestic relationship of husband and wife, neither spouse should be allowed to testify against the other.

It does not in our view deal with this problem at all because on -- on the theory that it did, it would mean that husband and wife could not be convicted together of the subsequent of defense, which is certainly not the law.

Again, if a third party joined the conspiracy it is clear that husband, wife and the third party, each to be separately tried and punished.

We think that to say that the Hawkins case, applies here is to expand it beyond its purpose.

It is in fact to say, that under all circumstances despite the evidence, despite the proof, husband and wife upon some outmoded fiction of unity cannot conspire.

Turning to the criminal status, criminal independence, the criminal responsibility of a married woman present time is clear that in those jurisdictions, majority of jurisdictions which have dealt with the problem of whether one spouse may steal from another which derive from the same fiction of the unity the rule that neither spouse could steal from one another, is derived from the same fiction of unity which the District Court applied here to support this notion that they could not conspire together.

The majority of jurisdictions in this country which have dealt with this problem have held husband and wife can steal from one another if they are separate and discreet individuals.

Most recently in fact and I might point out this is noted at page three of our reply brief, the New York Court of Appeals in 1954 held in the case of People against Morton and it's cited to page two and three of our reply brief, held that a husband may steal from his wife but she was a separate person within the New York larceny statute.

Again at the common law there was a presumption that a married woman who committed a crime in her husband's presence acted under his control and coercion.

This presumption derived from perhaps a more realistic view of the legal relationship of husband and wife at common law.

That is that the wife was subservient to and under the control of her husband, that she was under his dominance, nonetheless and at least 21 jurisdictions that we have been able to find this presumption has been overturned and in those jurisdictions in order to support the defense the married woman must show affirmatively that she was acting under the control of her husband.

Potter Stewart:

And in that respect what is the presumption and was the --what is the way that the presumption if any in the Federal (Voice Overlap) --