213 U.S. 103 (1909), 626, Hepner v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 626
Citation:213 U.S. 103, 29 S.Ct. 474, 53 L.Ed. 720
Party Name:Hepner v. United States
Case Date:April 05, 1909
Court:United States Supreme Court

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213 U.S. 103 (1909)

29 S.Ct. 474, 53 L.Ed. 720



United States

No. 626

United States Supreme Court

April 5, 1909

Argued March 2, 1909




A penalty may be recovered by a civil action, although such an action may be so far criminal in its nature that the defendant cannot be compelled to testify against himself therein in respect to any matter involving his being guilty of a criminal offense.

A suit brought by the United States to recover the penalty prescribed by §§ 4 and 5 of the Alien Immigration Act of March 3, 1903, c. 1012, 32 Stat. 1213, is a civil suit and not a criminal prosecution, and when it appears by undisputed testimony that a defendant has committed an offense against those sections, the trial judge may direct a verdict in favor of the government.

The facts, which involve the right of a trial judge to direct a verdict in favor of the government in an action for penalty

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for violation of the Alien Immigration Law, are stated in the opinion.

HARLAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action of debt was brought by the United States to recover a penalty under the statute of Congress of March 3, 1903, regulating the immigration of aliens into this country. 32 Stat. 1213, 1214, c. 1012. The case is now before this Court upon a question certified by the judges of the circuit court of appeals under the authority of § 6 of the Judiciary Act of March 3, 1891. 26 Stat. 828, c. 517.

Sections 4 and 5 of the act of 1903 are as follows:

SEC. 4. That it shall be unlawful for any person, company, partnership, or corporation, in any manner whatsoever, to prepay the transportation or in any way to assist or encourage the importation or migration of any alien into the United States, in pursuance of any offer, solicitation, promise, or agreement, parol or special, expressed or implied, made previous to the importation of such alien to perform labor or service of any kind, skilled or unskilled, in the United States.

SEC. 5. That for every violation of any of the provisions of section four of this act, the person, partnership, company, or corporation violating the same by knowingly assisting, encouraging, or soliciting the migration or importation of any alien to the United States to perform labor or service of any kind by reason of any offer, solicitation, promise, or agreement, express or implied, parol or special, to or with such alien, shall forfeit and pay for every such offense the sum of one thousand dollars, which may be sued for and recovered by the United States, or by any person who shall first bring his action therefor

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in his own name and for his own benefit, including any such alien thus promised labor or service of any kind as aforesaid, as debts of like amount are now recovered in the courts of the United States, and separate suits may be brought for each alien thus promised labor or service of any kind as aforesaid. And it shall be the duty of the district attorney of the proper district to prosecute every such suit when brought by the United States.

In the present action, there was a judgment for the United States against the defendant, Hepner, for the prescribed penalty of $1,000. It is certified by the judges of the circuit court of appeals, to which the case was taken upon writ of error, that the testimony showed that an alien was induced by an offer, solicitation, or promise of the defendant to migrate to the United States for the purpose of performing labor here.

The question propounded to this Court by the judges of the circuit court of appeals is:

When it appears by undisputed testimony that a defendant has committed an offense against secs. 4 and 5 of the Act of March 3, 1903, may the trial judge direct a verdict in favor of the government, plaintiff, which has sued for the $1,000 forfeited by such offense under said section 5?

Is this to be deemed as in all substantial respects a civil suit, as distinguished from a strictly criminal case or criminal prosecution? This must be first determined before answering the specific question propounded by the judges below. It is well to look at some of the adjudications in suits for statutory penalties.

In Stockwell v. United States, 13 Wall. 531, 542-543, which was an action of debt, brought by the United States to recover forfeitures and penalties incurred under the act of Congress of March 3, 1823, 3 Stat. 781, c. 58, relating to the entry of merchandise imported into the United States from any adjacent territory, the question arose whether a civil action could be maintained by the government. That act provided, among

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other things, that anyone receiving, concealing, or buying [29 S.Ct. 476] goods, wares, or merchandise, knowing them to have been illegally imported and liable to seizure,

shall, on conviction thereof, forfeit and pay a sum double the amount or value of the goods, wares, or merchandise so received, concealed, or purchased.

The defendant in that case insisted that the government could not proceed by a civil suit to recover the penalty specified in the statute -- based, as that penalty was, on an offense against law -- except by indictment or information. The Court rejected that view, and, speaking by Mr. Justice Strong, said:

No authority has been adduced in support of this position, and it is believed that none exists. It cannot be that whether an action of debt is maintainable or not depends upon the question who is the plaintiff. Debt lies whenever a sum certain is due to the plaintiff, or a sum which can readily be reduced to a certainty -- a sum requiring no future valuation to settle its amount. It is not necessarily founded upon contract. It is immaterial in what manner the obligation was incurred, or by what it is evidenced, if the sum owing is capable of being definitely ascertained. The act of 1823 fixes the amount of the liability at double the value of the goods received, concealed, or purchased, and the only party injured by the illegal acts which subject the perpetrators to the liability is the United States. It would seem, therefore, that whether the liability incurred is to be regarded as a penalty, or as liquidated damages for an injury done to the United States, it is a debt, and, as such, it must be recoverable in a civil action. But all doubts respecting the matter are set at rest by the fourth section of the act, which enacted that all penalties and forfeitures incurred by force thereof shall be sued for, recovered, distributed, and accounted for in the manner prescribed by the act of March 2, 1799, entitled, "An Act to Regulate the Collection of Duties on Imports and Tonnage." By referring to § 89 of that act, March 2, 1799, c. 22, 1 Stat. 627, 695, it will be seen that it directs all penalties accruing by any breach of the act to be sued for and recovered, with costs of suit, in the name of the United States

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of America, in any court competent to try the same, and the collector within whose district a forfeiture shall have been incurred is enjoined to cause suits for the same to be commenced without delay. This manifestly contemplates civil actions, as does the proviso to the same section, which declares that no action or prosecution shall be maintained in any case under the act, unless the same shall have been commenced within three years after the penalty or forfeiture was incurred, accordingly, it has frequently been ruled that debt will lie at the suit of the United States, to recover the penalties and forfeitures imposed by statutes. It is true that the statute of 1823 imposes the forfeiture and liability to pay double the value of the goods received, concealed, or purchased, with knowledge that they had been illegally imported, "on conviction thereof." It may be, therefor, that an indictment or information might be sustained. But the question now is whether a civil action can be brought, and, in view of the provision that all penalties and forfeitures incurred by force of the act shall "be sued for and recovered," as prescribed by the act of 1799, we are of opinion that debt is maintainable. The expression, "sued for and recovered," is primarily applicable to civil actions, and not to those of a criminal nature.

In Jacobs v. United States, 1 Brock, 520, 525, the question arose whether the United States could maintain an action of debt to recover the specific sum which an act of Congress (December 21, 1814, c. 15, 3 Stat. 152, 155) providing for additional revenue declared should be forfeited and paid by any person guilty of the offense of forcibly rescuing or causing to be arrested, any spirits, etc., after the same had been seized by the collector. Chief Justice Marshall held that an action of that kind was a "civil cause" (September 24, 1789, c. 20, p. 73, 1 Stat. 73, 76) within the meaning of the ninth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, defining the jurisdiction of the district courts of the United States. In Stearns v. United States, 2 Paine, 300, Mr. Justice Thompson, in the Circuit Court of the United States for the district of Vermont, held that actions

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for penalties were civil actions both in form and in substance, citing 3 Blackstone's Com. 158, and Atcheson v. Everitt, 1...

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