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Law School Case Brief

*** v. United States - 489 U.S. 705, 109 S. Ct. 1443 (1989)


The federal mail fraud statute does not purport to reach all frauds, but only those limited instances in which the use of the mails is a part of the execution of the fraud, leaving all other cases to be dealt with by appropriate state law. To be part of the execution of the fraud, however, the use of the mails need not be an essential element of the scheme. It is sufficient for the mailing to be incident to an essential part of the scheme, or a step in the plot.


A used-car distributor in Wisconsin allegedly engaged in an ongoing venture in which (1) the distributor purchased used cars, rolled back their odometers, and sold the cars to unwitting retail dealers at artificially inflated prices, (2) the dealers resold the cars to customers at prices reflecting the distributor's fraud, and (3) each dealer, to complete the resale of each car under Wisconsin law, mailed a title-application form to the Wisconsin transportation department on behalf of the customer. The distributor was indicted on 12 counts of mail fraud, in violation of 15 U.S.C.S. § 1341. Before trial, the distributor moved to dismiss the indictment on the ground that the mailings at issue -- the submissions of the title-application forms by the dealers -- were not in furtherance of the fraudulent scheme and thus did not satisfy the mailing element of the crime of mail fraud. The distributor also moved under Rule 31(c) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure--which provides that an accused may be found guilty of an offense necessarily included in the offense charged--for a jury instruction on the offense of tampering with a motor vehicle odometer 15 U.S.C.S. §§ 1984 and 1990c(a).


Was defendant properly convicted of mail fraud, and not entitled to lesser included offense instruction on odometer tampering?




The United States Supreme Court affirmed a judgment of conviction, concluding that the proper test for determining whether a defendant was entitled to an instruction on a lesser-included offense under Fed. R. Crim. P. 31(c) was the elements test and that the offense of odometer tampering was not a lesser-included offense of mail fraud. First, the Court clarified the scope of the offense of mail fraud, explaining that the use of the mail need not be an essential element of the scheme, but that it was sufficient that the mailing be incidental to an essential part of the scheme. Applying that scope to the offense charged, the Court held that petitioner was guilty of mail fraud when the use of the mails to transfer title of used cars was essential to maintaining his good relationship with the used car dealers he was defrauding. Next, the court held that the language and history of Rule 31(c) as well as the goals of judicial certainty and predictability all supported the application of the elements test, rather than the inherent relationship test. Applying the elements test to the offenses charged, the Court found that the element of the offense of odometer tampering was not a subset of any element of mail fraud.

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