United States v. Bailey

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United States v. Bailey, 444 U.S. 394 (1980), was a United States Supreme Court decision which ruled that common law defenses apply against all crimes, even when the statute in question does not specifically mention them.

Federal prisoners Clifford Bailey, James T. Cogdell, Ronald C. Cooley, and Ralph Walker had escaped from the District of Columbia jail on August 26, 1976. Less than four months later, they were recaptured and charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 751(a), which criminalizes escape from legal federal custody. They pleaded the common law defense of necessity, arguing that conditions in the prison were so bad that they constituted illegal duress. According to them, guards routinely let fires burn unattended and beat prisoners. Walker also said he had not received medical treatment for his epilepsy, and Cooley and Bailey said guards had threatened to kill them.

Justice William Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion. He agreed that necessity and duress would be a defense to violating 18 U.S.C. § 751(a), even though it does not specifically mention them.

In enacting the Federal Criminal Code, Congress legislated in the light of a long history of case law that is frequently relevant in fleshing out the bare bones of a crime that Congress may have proscribed in a single sentence... Congress, in enacting criminal statutes, legislates against a background of Anglo-Saxon common law...

However, he said, the respondents had never attempted to surrender themselves to Federal custody. Even if necessity and duress had legitimately caused them to escape, they would have had to surrender themselves to Federal custody once they had put themselves beyond the duress by escaping.

Justice John Paul Stevens concurred with respect to all but Walker, who had called an FBI agent three times after escaping, in unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a surrender.

Justice Harry Blackmun wrote a dissent focusing on prison conditions, arguing that they were indeed bad enough to constitute unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. The duress continued after the escape, he said, because surrendering to authorities would have simply meant return to the same prison.