Criminal Law, Pages 150–155

United States v. Bailey

Supreme Court of the United States, 1980


The four defendants escaped from federal jail by escaping through a window and down a bedsheet. Within 3½ months they were all recaptured and charged with escaping federal custody under 18 U.S.C. § 751(a).

Procedural History:

  • Each defendant was convicted by the jury.

  • Court of appeals revered and remanded for new trials, finding that § 751(a) required that the prosecution prove a particular defendant left custody voluntarily, without permission, and "with an intent to avoid confinement" and that "confinement" only encompasses the "normal aspects" or punishment prescribed by the legal system, so if a prisoner escapes to avoid "non-confinement" conditions like beatings, he does not necessarily have the requisite intent to sustain a conviction.


Did defendants act with the intent to escape custody?

Defendant's Argument:

Defendants received beatings and death threats from the guards while in jail, did not get sufficient medical treatment, and fires were frequently allowed to burn in their cellblock. While these fires posed no threat of spreading, poor ventilation caused the smoke to linger in the cellblock. These conditions put the defendants under duress or necessity to escape.


LexisNexis IconWestLaw LogoGoogle Scholar LogoPage 152

[A] person who causes a particular result is said to act purposefully if "'he consciously desires that result, whatever the likelihood of that result happening from his conduct,'" while he is said to act knowingly if he is aware "'that that result is practically certain to follow from his conduct, whatever his desire may be as to that result.'"

LexisNexis IconWestLaw LogoGoogle Scholar LogoPage 153

"[C]lear analysis requires that the question of the kind of culpability required to establish the commission of an offense be faced separately with respect to each material element of the crime."


Nothing in the statute indicates that Congress intended to require such a high standard of culpability or such a narrow definition of confinement. Cases such as this have generally held that proof that the defendant acted knowingly is sufficient. Thus, the prosecution fulfills its burden under the statute if it shows that an escapee knew his actions would result in leaving physical confinement without permission.


Yes, prosecutions acted knowingly when they escaped custody, which is sufficient for this case. Reversed.