United States v. Sullivan

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United States v. Sullivan
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Decided May 16, 1927
Full case nameUnited States of America v. Manley Sullivan
Citations274 U.S. 259 (more)
47 S. Ct. 607; 71 L. Ed. 1037; 1927 U.S. LEXIS 25
Case history
Prior15 F.2d 809 (4th Cir. 1926)
The Fifth Amendment does not bar prosecution of criminals for failing to file income tax returns based on ill-gotten gains.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William H. Taft
Associate Justices
Oliver W. Holmes Jr. · Willis Van Devanter
James C. McReynolds · Louis Brandeis
George Sutherland · Pierce Butler
Edward T. Sanford · Harlan F. Stone
Case opinion
MajorityHolmes, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. V; Revenue Act of 1921

United States v. Sullivan, 274 U.S. 259 (1927), is a United States Supreme Court case that allowed prosecution of criminals for income tax evasion, the Fifth Amendment not withstanding.[1]


In the 1920s, during the prohibition era, successful prosecution of prominent organized crime bosses was nearly impossible due to witness intimidation and the lack of written records. Mabel Walker Willebrandt, then an Assistant Attorney General in charge of enforcing the Volsted Act, recognized that these figures publicly led lavish lifestyles yet never filed tax returns, and thus might be prosecuted for this failure without requiring testimony about the specific crimes that enriched them. The first person prosecuted under this theory was Manley Sullivan, a South Carolina bootlegger. Sullivan's lawyers argued that filing a tax return on illegal income would amount to self-incrimination, and he was therefore protected by the Fifth Amendment. Sullivan was convicted in Federal court, But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, on Fifth Amendment grounds.[2][3]


Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote for the court. He noted that the Revenue Act of 1921 provided that gross income includes "gains, profits, and income derived from ... the transaction of any business carried on for gain or profit, or gains or profits and income derived from any source whatever," and that while the 1913 version of law included the word "lawful" before "business," Congress had removed the word "lawful" in 1921. Holmes rejected the Fifth Amendment argument saying that if a defendant believed information required on the tax form would incriminate him, he could raise that issue on the form, but he could not simply refuse to file. Holmes dispatched another objection saying:

It is urged that, if a return were made, the defendant would be entitled to deduct illegal expenses, such as bribery. This by no means follows, but it will be time enough to consider the question when a taxpayer has the temerity to raise it.


Many criminals (and others) have subsequently been prosecuted for tax evasion. In particular, Al Capone was convicted in 1931.[4][5]

To this very day, Publication 17 of the Internal Revenue Service notes that "[i]ncome from illegal activities," including money from dealing illegal drugs or bribes received, must be included in the declaration of one's income.[6][7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ United States v. Sullivan, 274 U.S. 259 (1927).
  2. ^ Sullivan v. United States, 15 F.2d 809 (4th Cir. 1926).
  3. ^ Bryson, Bill (2013). One Summer, America, 1927. New York: Random House. pp. 116–117. ISBN 978-0-375-43432-7.
  4. ^ Berger, Meyer (1931-10-18). "CAPONE CONVICTED OF DODGING TAXES; MAY GET 17 YEARS; Jury Finds Him Guilty on Two Misdemeanor and Three Felony Counts.--IT IS OUT FOR 8 HOURS--Tuesday Set for Hearing Defense Motion for New Trial, Before Sentence Is Passed.--VERDICT PUZZLES COUNSEL But Prosecutor Accepts It After Conference--". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-03-05.
  5. ^ Glass, Andrew (May 16, 2013). "Court rules that criminals must pay income tax, May 16, 1927". POLITICO. Retrieved 2018-03-05.
  6. ^ Hargreaves, Steve. "The IRS wants to tax your illegal income". CNNMoney. Retrieved 2018-03-05.
  7. ^ IRS Publication 17

External links[edit]