Sorrells v. U.S., 287 U.S. 435 (1932)

2012-09-06 22:06:35

‘‘The officer made me do it!’’ The federal courts did not recognize this common excuse as a possible defense to criminal conduct until Sorrells v. United States. In Sorrells, a prohibition agent visited the house of the defendant and represented himself as a World War I veteran. During the course of the night, the prohibition agent asked the defendant three times to retrieve some liquor. After declining twice, the defendant left his home and quickly returned with a half gallon of liquor. The defendant was subsequently convicted of possessing and selling whiskey in violation of the National Prohibition Act. The Supreme Court considered whether the evidence produced at trial was sufficient to create a jury question on the issue of entrapment.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Hughes resolved the entrapment issue in terms of statutory construction. The Court explained that Congress could not have intended for government officials to enforce the prohibition statute by coercion or abuse. The Court held that when a government official induces criminal conduct by an otherwise innocent person who lacks the predisposition to commit the crime, the entrapment defense should be submitted to the jury as a matter of law.

Justice Roberts’ concurrence provided a broader reading of the entrapment defense. Roberts emphasized that the entrapment doctrine protects the violation of the principles of justice. Roberts believed that regardless of the defendant’s previous record, the courts must not allow a conviction for a crime instigated by the government’s own agents.

Since Sorrells, courts have primarily followed the reasoning in the majority opinion rather than the concurrence. In fact, many jurisdictions have limited the scope and availability of the entrapment defense.


References and Further Reading

  • 21 Am. Jur. 2d Criminal Law } 247. Colquitt, Joseph A. Rethinking Entrapment, American Criminal Law Review 41 (2004): 1389.