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United States v. West

decided: April 7, 1981.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE,
v.
ROBERT E. WEST, APPELLANT



Upon appeal from a judgment entered after a jury trial in the District of Vermont, Albert W. Coffrin, District Judge, convicting appellant of submitting false statements to the Farmers Production Credit Association, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1001 and 1014 (1976), the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for the reasons set forth herein. Reversed and remanded.

Before Kaufman and Timbers, Circuit Judges, and Ward, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Timbers

Appellant Robert West was convicted after a two day jury trial in the District of Vermont, Albert W. Coffrin, District Judge, on one count of knowingly making false statements to the Farmers Production Credit Association (FPCA) in South Burlington, Vermont, with the intention of influencing that organization, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1014 (1976); on one count of falsifying and concealing a material fact in a matter within the jurisdiction of the Farm Credit Administration, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (1976); and on one count of using a document he knew to contain false statements in a matter before the Farm Credit Administration, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001.

The gravamen of the offenses with which appellant was charged was that in 1975 he tendered to the FPCA a notarized mortgage deed, a promissory note and a loan agreement which purported to bear the signature of Judith West, appellant's then wife, but on which appellant in fact had signed Mrs. West's name.

On appeal appellant claims that the district court erred (1) in refusing to charge the jury that the government was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that appellant lacked authority to sign Mrs. West's name on the document; and (2) in refusing to admit in evidence a divorce settlement agreement between appellant and Mrs. West.*fn1 Since we hold that appellant's claim of authorization constituted a valid affirmative defense which, once raised, the government was required to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt and that the district court erred in failing to instruct the jury on authorization, we reverse appellant's conviction on all counts and remand the case for a new trial.

I.

Appellant and his wife owned real estate in Manchester, Vermont. They acquired it in 1969. The property included a "run down" old house. Between 1969 and 1972, appellant obtained a series of unsecured demand loans from the FPCA for repairs on the property. The loans were extended with the understanding that once appellant had made the repairs he would obtain long term financing from the Federal Land Bank or a commercial source. In 1975, after appellant was unable to obtain long term financing from another source, FPCA officials asked appellant to give the agency a mortgage on the property as security for a promissory note in the amount of the outstanding loan balance.

On October 28, 1975, appellant tendered to the FPCA a mortgage deed, two promissory notes and a loan agreement. The mortgage deed, the loan agreement and one of the promissory notes purported to be signed by appellant's wife, Judith. In fact, appellant himself had signed her name. At the time appellant signed his wife's name, Mr. and Mrs. West were living apart. They subsequently were divorced.

At the trial, appellant admitted that he had signed his wife's name on the documents in question. His sole defense was that Judith had authorized him to sign her name on financial documents, or alternatively, that he reasonably believed he was authorized to sign for her.

Appellant offered in evidence at the trial a stipulation of settlement signed by appellant and Judith on December 2, 1975 in connection with their divorce. Article VI of the agreement read: "Plaintiff (appellant herein) shall terminate his right to sign any obligations on behalf of defendant (Judith West) at any financial institution, or otherwise, with regard to any future obligation." In support of his offer, appellant urged that the stipulation was relevant to the question of whether he in fact was authorized to sign Judith's name on the documents in question. Indeed, the stipulation appears to have been the only evidence, except appellant's testimony, which was probative on the question of authority. The district court refused to admit the settlement agreement on the ground that it was hearsay and did not fall within any exception to the hearsay rule.

Appellant made a timely request, relying upon United States v. Gilbreath, 452 F.2d 992 (5 Cir. 1971), that the district court instruct the jury that, in order to convict appellant, the government was required to overcome a presumption that appellant was authorized to sign Mrs. West's name. In the alternative, appellant urged that, because he believed he was authorized to sign his wife's name, appellant had not "knowingly or wilfully" submitted false documents. The district court, however, did not mention "authorization" in its charge to the jury, either as an affirmative defense or as an element of the government's required proof.

II.

The two provisions of the statute under which appellant was prosecuted prohibit knowingly making false statements, or using any false writing or document which contains a false statement, in any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States, 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (1976), and knowingly making any false statement for the purpose of influencing any of the specified government owned or insured financial institutions which grant loans to homeowners and farmers, 18 U.S.C. § 1014 (1976).

Under either provision of the statute, a defendant may be convicted of making a false statement only if the government proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant either knew the statement was false, United States v. Marchisio, 344 F.2d 653, 666 (2 Cir. 1965) (§ 1001); United States v. Erskine, 588 F.2d 721, 722 (9 Cir. 1978) (§ 1014), or acted with a conscious purpose to avoid learning the truth. United States v. Egenberg, 441 F.2d 441, 444 (2 Cir.), cert. denied, 404 U.S. ...


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