152 U.S. 133 (1894), 203, Lawton v. Steele

Docket Nº:No. 203
Citation:152 U.S. 133, 14 S.Ct. 499, 38 L.Ed. 385
Party Name:Lawton v. Steele
Case Date:March 05, 1894
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 133

152 U.S. 133 (1894)

14 S.Ct. 499, 38 L.Ed. 385




No. 203

United States Supreme Court

March 5, 1894

Submitted January 17, 1894




It is within the power of a State to preserve from extinction fisheries in waters within its jurisdiction by prohibiting exhaustive methods of fishing, or the use of such destructive instruments as are likely to result in the extermination of the young as well as the mature fish.

The provision in the statutes of New York. c. 591 of the Laws of 1880, as amended by c. 317 of the Laws of 1883, that nets set or maintained upon waters of the state or on the shores of or islands in such waters in violation of the statutes of the state enacted for the protection of fish, may be summarily destroyed by any person, and that it shall be the duty of certain officers to abate, remove, and forthwith destroy them, and that no action for damages shall lie or be maintained against any person for or on account of such seizure or destruction, is a lawful exercise of the police power of the state, and does not deprive the citizen of his property without due process of law in violation of the provision of the Constitution of the United States.

This was an action at law instituted in the Supreme Court for the County of Jefferson by the plaintiffs in error against the defendant in error, together with Edward L. Sargent and Richard U. Sherman, for the conversion of fifteen hoop and fyke nets of the alleged value of $525. Defendants Steele and Sargent interposed a general denial. Defendant Sherman pleaded that he, with three others, constituted the Commissioners of Fisheries of the State of New York, with power to give directions to game and fish protectors with regard to the enforcement of the game law; that defendant Steele was

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a game and fish protector duly appointed by the governor of the State [14 S.Ct. 500] of New York, and that the nets sued for were taken possession of by said Steele, as such game and fish protector, upon the ground that they were maintained upon the waters of the state in violation of existing statutes for the protection of fish and game, and thereby became a public nuisance.

The facts were undisputed. The nets were the property of the plaintiffs, and were taken away by the defendant Steele and destroyed. At the time of the taking, most of the nets were in the waters of the Black River Bay, being used for fishing purposes, and the residue were upon the shore of that bay, having recently been used for the same purpose. The plaintiffs were fishermen, and the defendant Steele was a state game and fish protector. The taking and destruction of the nets were claimed to have been justifiable under the statutes of the state relating to the protection of game and fish. Plaintiffs claimed there was no justification under the statutes, and if they constituted such justification upon their face, they were unconstitutional. Defendant Sherman was a state fish commissioner. Defendant Sargent was president of the Jefferson County Fish & Game Association. Plaintiffs claimed these defendants to be liable upon the ground that they instigated, incited, or directed the taking and destruction of the nets.

Upon trial before a jury, a verdict was rendered, subject to the opinion of the court, in favor of the plaintiffs against defendant Steele for the sum of $216, and in favor of defendants Sargent and Sherman. A motion for a new trial was denied, and judgment entered upon the verdict for $216 damages and $166.09 costs. On appeal to the general term, this judgment was reversed and a new trial ordered, and a further appeal allowed to the Court of Appeals. On appeal to the Court of Appeals, the order of the general term granting a new trial was affirmed, and judgment absolute ordered for the defendant. 119 N.Y. 226. Plaintiffs thereupon sued out a writ of error from this Court.

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BROWN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BROWN, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves the constitutionality of an act of the legislature of the State of New York known as chapter 591, Laws N.Y. 1880, as amended by chapter 317, Laws N.Y. 1883, entitled "An act for the appointment of game and fish protectors."

By a subsequent act enacted April 15, 1886, c. 151:

SECTION 1. No person shall at any time kill or take from the waters of Henderson Bay or Lake Ontario, within one mile from the shore, between the most westerly point of Pillar Point and the boundary line between the Counties of Jefferson and Oswego, . . . any fish of any kind by any device or means whatever otherwise than by hook and line or rod held in hand. But this section shall not apply to or prohibit the catching of minnows for bait, providing the person using nets for that purpose shall not set them, and shall throw back any trout, bass, or any other game fish taken, and keep only chubs, dace, suckers, or shiners.

SEC. 2. Any person violating any of the provisions of this act shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and liable to a penalty of $50 for each offense.

Laws 1886, c. 141.

By the act of 1880, as amended by the act of 1883:

SEC. 2. Any net, pound, or other means or device for taking or capturing fish, or whereby they may be taken or captured, set, put, floated, had, found, or maintained in or upon any of the waters of this state, or upon the shores of or islands in any of the waters of this state in violation of any existing or hereafter enacted statutes or laws for the protection of fish is hereby declared to be and is a public nuisance, and may be abated and summarily destroyed by any person, and it shall be the duty of each and every protector aforesaid and of every game constable to seize and remove and forthwith destroy the same, . . . and no action for damages shall lie or be maintained against any person for or on account of any such seizure and destruction.

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This last section was alleged to be unconstitutional and void for three reasons: (1) as depriving the citizen of his property without due process of law; (2) as being in restraint of the liberty of the citizen; (3) as being an interference with the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States.

The trial court ruled the first of the above propositions in plaintiffs' favor, and the others against them, and judgment was thereupon entered in favor of the plaintiffs.

The constitutionality of the section in question was, however, sustained by the general term and by the Court of Appeals, upon the ground of its being a lawful exercise of the police power of the state.

The extent and limits of what is known as the "police power" have been a fruitful subject of discussion in the appellate courts of nearly every state in the Union. It is universally conceded to include everything essential to the public safety, health, and morals, and to justify the destruction or abatement, by summary proceedings, of whatever may be regarded as a public nuisance. Under this power, it has been held that the state may order the destruction of a house falling to decay or otherwise endangering the lives of passers-by; the demolition of such as are in the path of a conflagration; the slaughter of diseased cattle; the destruction of decayed or unwholesome food; the prohibition of wooden buildings in cities; the regulation of railways and other means of public conveyance, and of interments in burial grounds; the restriction of objectionable trades to certain [14 S.Ct. 501] localities; the compulsory vaccination of children; the confinement of the insane or those afflicted with contagious diseases; the restraint of vagrants, beggars, and habitual drunkards; the suppression of obscene publications and houses of ill fame, and the prohibition of gambling houses and places where intoxicating liquors are sold. Beyond this, however, the state may interfere wherever the public interests demand it, and in this particular a large discretion is necessarily vested in the legislature to determine not only what the interests of the public require, but what measures are necessary for the protection of such interests. Barbier v. Connolly, 113 U.S. 27; Kidd v. Pearson, 128 U.S. 1.

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To justify the state in thus interposing its authority in behalf of the public, it must appear first that the interests of the public generally, as distinguished from those of a particular class, require such interference, and second that the means are reasonably necessary for the accomplishment of the purpose, and not unduly oppressive upon individuals. The legislature may not, under the guise of protecting the public interests, arbitrarily interfere with private business or impose unusual and unnecessary restrictions upon lawful occupations; in other words, its determination as to what is a proper exercise of its police powers is not final or conclusive, but is subject to the supervision of the courts. Thus, an act requiring the master of a vessel arriving from a foreign port to report the name, birthplace, and occupation of every passenger, and the owner of such vessel to give a bond for every passenger so reported conditioned to indemnify the state against any expense for the support of the persons named for four years thereafter was held by this Court to be indefensible as an exercise of the police power, and to be...

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