United States v. Cruikshank

92 U.S. 542 (1875)



Where the definition of an offense, whether it be at common law or by statute, includes generic terms, it is not sufficient that the indictment charges the offense in the same generic terms as in the definition; it must state the specifics and  particulars. The object of the indictment is, first, to furnish the accused with such a description of the charge against him as can enable him to make his defense, and avail himself of his conviction or acquittal for protection against a further prosecution for the same cause; and, second, to inform the court of the facts alleged, so that it may decide whether they are sufficient in law to support a conviction, if one is to be had. For this, facts are to be stated, not conclusions of law alone. A crime is made up of acts and intent; and these must be set forth in the indictment, with reasonable particularity of time, place, and circumstances.


 Defendants were indicted for conspiracy. The lower court held that the several counts charging defendants with conspiracy were not sufficient in law and granted the motion in arrest of judgment. By certified question, the Supreme Court affirmed and remanded. The counts were too vague and general. The accused had the right to have a specification of the charge against him, in order that he could decide whether he could present his defense by motion to quash, demurrer, or plea.


Were the counts in the indictment sufficient in law, and did they contain charges of criminal matters indictable under the laws of the United States?




Because it does not appear from the counts in the indictment that the intent of the defendants was to prevent parties from exercising their right to vote on account of their race,  it does not appear that it was their intent to interfere with any right granted or secured by the constitution or laws of the United States. The court may suspect that race was the cause of the hostility; but it is not so averred. This is material to a description of the substance of the offense, and cannot be supplied by implication. Every thing essential must be charged positively, and not inferentially. The defect is not in form, but in substance.

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