Monday, August 02, 2010

U.S. v. Monday (9th Cir. - Aug. 2, 2010)

Sometimes the plain language of a statute really is dispositive. Mostly.

The Post Office thinks that one of its letter carriers, Henry Monday, has been stealing mail. So they send a "birthday card" with $40 in it to one of the people on his route. They're right; he opens the letter and steals the $40, and uses it to buy a snack at a local liquor store. They arrest him and charge him with "Theft of Mail" under 18 U.S.C. sect. 1709.

Monday's been caught pretty much dead to rights, so his defense at trial is that he never meant to "steal" the $40, but instead took the money in order to prompt a "talk" with his supervisors. Yes, I know. Lame. But at least, allegedly, this defense removes the "specific intent" of stealing the money, since he was going to give it back after he was caught. Or something like that.

Except Section 1709 makes it a crime for a postal official to "steal[], abstract[] or remove" anything from the mail. "Steal" may require an intent to deprive. But, the Ninth Circuit holds, "remove" doesn't. And since Monday admitted he "removed" the $40, he's guilty. All the fancy legal arguments defendant asserts fail given the "plain language" of the statute in that regard.

Normally, I'm a bit hesitant to find "plain" language "plain," and think that courts often go way overboard and overly simplify things with reference to allegedly "clear" statutory language. In this one, howevever, I think that Judge Canby is correct. The only thing I'd add is that there's a good reason -- call it "legislative intent" -- for the statute to criminalize the "removal" of mail in addition to its theft. Postal carriers shouldn't be doing that either. It's not their mail. So even if Monday's right, I agree with Judge Canby that he's still guilty. Reading the plain language of the statute in a way that makes sense, consistent with its purposes, broadens the statute so that the arguments that Monday makes don't matter.

So with the caveat that a "plain reading" of a statute has to make sense, I wholeheartedly concur in this one.