232 U.S. 37 (1914), 503, United States v. Regan

Docket Nº:No. 503
Citation:232 U.S. 37, 34 S.Ct. 213, 58 L.Ed. 494
Party Name:United States v. Regan
Case Date:January 05, 1914
Court:United States Supreme Court

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232 U.S. 37 (1914)

34 S.Ct. 213, 58 L.Ed. 494

United States



No. 503

United States Supreme Court

January 5, 1914

Argued October 22, 1913




While, in strictly criminal prosecutions, the jury may not return a verdict against the defendant unless the evidence establishes his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, in civil actions, it is the duty of the jury to resolve the issues of fact according to the reasonable preponderance of the evidence, and this although they may involve a penalized or criminal act.

In an action brought by the United States under § 5 of the Alien Immigration Act of February 20, 1907, c. 1134, 34 Stat. 898, to recover the prescribed pecuniary penalty for an alleged violation of § 4 of the act, it is not essential to a recovery by the government that the evidence establish the violation beyond a reasonable doubt, as in a criminal case, but a reasonable preponderance of proof is sufficient.

203 F. 433 reversed.

The facts, which involve the construction of the penalty provisions of the Alien Immigration Act of 1907, are stated in the opinion.

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VANDEVANTER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE VAN DEVANTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This was an action of debt prosecuted by [34 S.Ct. 214] the United States, under § 5 of the Act of February 20, 1907, 34 Stat. 898, c. 1134, known as the Alien Immigration Act, to recover $1,000 as a penalty for an alleged violation by the defendant of § 4 of that act, and the question now to be considered is whether it was essential to a recovery that the evidence should establish the violation beyond a reasonable doubt. The district court instructed the jury that this measure of proof was required, and the instruction was approved by the circuit court of appeals. 183 F. 293. The two sections are as follows:

SEC. 4. That it shall be a misdemeanor 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 contract laborer or contract laborers into the United States unless such contract laborer or contract laborers are exempted under the terms of the last two provisos contained in section two of this Act.

SEC. 5. That for every violation of any of the provisions of section four of this Act, the persons, partnership, company, or corporation violating the same by knowingly assisting, encouraging, or soliciting the migration or importation of any contract laborer into the United States 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 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

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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.

These sections are largely copied from the like-numbered sections of the Act of March 3, 1903, 32 Stat. 1213, c. 1012, the words "shall be unlawful" in § 4 being changed to "shall be a misdemeanor," and the words "shall forfeit and pay for every such offense," § 5, with what follows them, remaining as before.

Whether cases like this are civil or criminal, and whether they are attended by the incidents of the one or the other, have been so often considered by this Court that our present duty, as we shall see, is chiefly that of applying settled rules of decision.

In Stockwell v. United States, 13 Wall. 531, the question arose whether the United States could maintain a civil action of debt to recover a penalty incurred under the Act of March 3, 1823, 3 Stat. 781, c. 58, providing that any person receiving, concealing, or buying merchandise, knowing that it was illegally imported and subject to seizure, should, "on conviction thereof," forfeit and pay double the value of the merchandise, there being also a provision that the penalty might be "sued for and recovered," in the name of the United States, in any court of competent jurisdiction, and this Court held that the civil action was maintainable, saying (p. 542):

But it is insisted that, when the government proceeds for a penalty based on an offense against law, if must be by indictment or by information. 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.

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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.

And again (p. 543): "The expression `sued for and recovered' is primarily applicable to civil actions, and not to those of a criminal nature."

In United States v. Zucker, 161 U.S. 475, the government, by an action of debt, sought to recover, as a penalty, the value of imported merchandise the entry of which had been fraudulently secured in violation of § 9 of the Act of June 10, 1890, 26 Stat. 131, c. 407, which subjected one committing that offense to a forfeiture of the merchandise, or its value, and to a fine and imprisonment. At the trial, the United States sought to read in evidence the deposition of an absent witness, theretofore taken in the cause, but the deposition was excluded upon the theory that the case, though civil in form, was in substance criminal, and therefore that the defendants were entitled, under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, to be confronted with the witnesses against them. This resulted in a judgment for the defendants, and, when the case came here, this Court pronounced the trial court's theory untenable, sustained the government's right to read the deposition, and reversed the judgment, saying [34 S.Ct. 215] (p. 481):

A witness who proves facts entitling the plaintiff in a proceeding in a court of the United States, even if the plaintiff be the government, to a judgment for money only, and not to a judgment which directly involves the personal safety of the defendant, is not, within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment, a witness against an "accused" in a criminal prosecution, and his evidence may be brought before the jury in the form of a deposition, taken as prescribed by the statutes regulating the mode in which depositions to be used in the courts of the United States may be taken. The defendant, in such a case, is no more entitled to be confronted at the trial with the witnesses

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of the plaintiff than he would be in a case where the evidence related to a claim for money that could be established without disclosing any facts tending to show the commission of crime.

In Hepner v. United States, 213 U.S. 103, the government had brought an action of debt, under § 5 of the Alien Immigration Act of 1903, to recover the penalty prescribed for a violation of § 4 of that act -- they being the sections from which those now under consideration are largely copied -- and, in the progress of the cause, it became necessary for this Court to consider whether a verdict for the government could be directed under the rule applicable in civil actions. Upon an extended review of the cases bearing upon the subject, including Atcheson v. Everitt, 1 Cowp. 382, the question was answered in the affirmative, and it was said:

[P. 108] It must be taken as settled law that a certain sum, or a sum which can readily be reduced to a certainty, prescribed in a statute as a penalty for the...

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