Bell v. United States

In Bell v. United States, 349 U.S. 81 (1955), the defendant was convicted of violating a section of the Mann Act. The relevant provisions of the Act provided: "'Whoever knowingly transports in interstate or foreign commerce . . . any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose . . . shall be fined not more than $ 5,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.'" Id. 349 U.S. at 82, 75 S. Ct. at 621 . The defendant transported two women, in the same car and on the same trip, across state lines in violation of the Act. He was charged and pled guilty to two separate counts of violating the Act, each referring to a different woman. Id. The defendant argued that he committed one offense and thus could not be subjected to cumulative punishments under the two counts. Id. The issue before the Supreme Court was "'what Congress has made the allowable unit of prosecution,'" and specifically, whether "Congress . . . made the simultaneous transportation of more than one woman in violation of the Mann Act liable to cumulative punishment for each woman so transported." Id. 349 U.S. at 81-83, 75 U.S. at 621-22 . The Court acknowledged that Congress may, at its discretion, set appropriate punishment for the commission of crimes, however, in that case, resort to the statute was of no avail. The Court determined that the statute did not reflect any Congressional intent regarding the appropriate punishment for two separate violations of the Act. Id. Therefore, the court employed the rule of lenity, and determined that the defendant's actions constituted one offense and punishment must be limited accordingly. Id. 349 U.S. at 83-84, 75 U.S. at 622. In Bell v. United States, the government asked the Supreme Court to adopt one reasonable construction of the Mann Act which would permit multiple prosecutions for interstate transportation of "any woman or girl" for immoral purposes. The government's interpretation of the statutory phrase, written in the singular, would permit multiple prosecutions for the transporting of multiple women or girls across state lines at one time. The Court rejected this reasonable interpretation under the Rule of Lenity, stating: It is not to be denied that argumentative skill, as shown at the Bar, could persuasively and not unreasonably reach either of the conflicting constructions. About only one aspect of the problem can one be dogmatic. When Congress has the will it has no difficulty in expressing it--when it has the will, that is, of defining what it desires to make the unit of prosecution and, more particularly, to make each stick in a faggot a single criminal unit. When Congress leaves to the Judiciary the task of imputing to Congress an undeclared will, the ambiguity should be resolved in favor of lenity.