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Law School Case Brief

Standefer v. United States - 447 U.S. 10, 100 S. Ct. 1999 (1980)

Rule:

18 U.S.C.S. § 2 evinces a clear intent to permit the conviction of accessories to federal criminal offenses despite the prior acquittal of the actual perpetrator of the offense.

Facts:

Defendant Standefer, as head of Gulf Oil Corp.’s tax department, had authorized payments for five vacation trips to Cyril Niederberger, who was then the Internal Revenue Service agent in charge of the audits of Gulf’s federal income tax returns. Thereafter, Standefer was indicted on four counts of making gifts to a public official, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 201(f), and on five counts of aiding and abetting a revenue official in accepting compensation in addition to that authorized by law, in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7214(a)(2) and 18 U.S.C. § 2. Meanwhile, Niederberger was separately charged with violation of 18 U.S.C. § 201(g) and 26 U.S.C. § 7214(a(2). Niederberger was acquitted of certain the § 7214(a)(2) violations that Standefer was accused of aiding and abetting. Standefer moved to dismiss his indictment as to aiding and abetting Neiderberger’s § 7214(a)(2) violations, on the ground that Neiderberger, who was the only named principal in the charges, had been acquitted of committing the offenses. The District Court denied the motion, and the defendant was convicted on all counts. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting once again the argument that defendant could not be convicted of aiding and abetting a principal when that principal had been acquitted of the charged offense. Standefer filed a petition for further review by the United States Supreme Court.

Issue:

Can a defendant charged of aiding and abetting a principal be convicted, notwithstanding the fact that the principal had been acquitted of the charged offense?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Court held that a defendant accused of aiding and abetting in the commission of a federal offense may properly be convicted despite the prior acquittal of the alleged actual perpetrator of the offense. According to the Court, when read against its common-law background, 18 U.S.C. § 2 evinced a clear congressional intent to permit such a conviction. The section gave general effect to what had always been the common-law rule for second-degree principals (i.e., principals who were actually or constructively present at the scene of the crime and aided and abetted its commission) and for all misdemeanants. The legislative history of § 2 confirms this understanding. The Court held that with the enactment of § 2, all participants in conduct violating a federal criminal statute are "principals," and as such they are punishable for their criminal conduct, the fate of other participants being irrelevant.

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