258 U.S. 254 (1922), 631, Ponzi v. Fessenden

Docket Nº:No. 631
Citation:258 U.S. 254, 42 S.Ct. 309, 66 L.Ed. 607
Party Name:Ponzi v. Fessenden
Case Date:March 27, 1922
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 254

258 U.S. 254 (1922)

42 S.Ct. 309, 66 L.Ed. 607




No. 631

United States Supreme Court

March 27, 1922

Argued March 8, 9, 1922




1. Our system of state and federal jurisdiction requires a spirit of reciprocal comity between courts to promote due and orderly procedure. P. 259.

2. The fact that a man is serving a sentence of imprisonment imposed by a federal court for a federal offense does not render him immune to prosecution in a state court for offenses committed against the state. P. 264.

3. A federal prisoner may, with the consent of the United States, be brought before a state court, for trial on indictment there, by a writ of habeas corpus issued by that court and directed to the warden having him in charge as federal agent, then to be returned and serve out the federal sentence. P. 261.

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4. The Attorney General, in view of his statutory functions, has implied power to exercise the comity of the United States in such cases, provided enforcement of the sentence of the federal court be not prevented, or the prisoner endangered. P. 262.

5. Upon trial and conviction of one already sentenced for another crime, execution of the second sentence may begin when the first terminates. P. 265.

[42 S.Ct. 309] This case comes here for answer to the following question of law:

May a prisoner, with the consent of the Attorney General, while serving a sentence imposed by a district court of the United States, be lawfully taken on a writ of habeas corpus, [42 S.Ct. 310] directed to the master of the House of Correction, who, as federal agent under a mittimus issued out of said district court, has custody of such prisoner, into a state court, in the custody of said master and there put to trial upon indictments there pending against him?

September 11, 1920, twenty-two indictments were returned against Charles Ponzi in the Superior Court for Suffolk County, Massachusetts, charging him with certain larcenies.

October 1, 1920, two indictments charging violation of § 215 of the Federal Penal Code were returned against him in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. November 30, 1920, he pleaded guilty to the first count of one of these, and was sentenced to imprisonment for five years in the House of Correction at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and committed.

April 21, 1921, the superior court issued a writ of habeas corpus directing the master of the House of Correction, who, as federal agent, had custody of Ponzi by virtue of the mittimus issued by the district court, to bring him before the superior court and to have him there from day to day thereafter for trial upon the pending indictments, but to hold the prisoner at all times in his custody as an agent of the United States, subject to the sentence imposed by the federal district court. Blake,

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the master of the House of Correction, made a return that he held Ponzi pursuant to process of the United States, and prayed that the writ be dismissed.

Thereafter the Assistant Attorney General of the United States, by direction of the United States Attorney General, stated in open court that the United States had no objection to the issuance of the writ, to the compliance with the writ by Blake, or to the production of Ponzi for trial in the superior court, and that the Attorney General had directed Blake to comply with the writ. Blake then produced the prisoner, who was arraigned on the state indictments and stood mute. A plea of not guilty was entered for him by the court.

May 23, 1921, Ponzi filed in the district court a petition for a writ of habeas corpus directed against the justice of the superior court, and against Blake, alleging in substance that he was within the exclusive control of the United States, and that the state court had no jurisdiction to try him while thus in federal custody. His petition for writ of habeas corpus was denied. An appeal was taken to the circuit court of appeals, the judges of which certify the question to this Court on the foregoing facts. Section 239, Judicial Code.

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TAFT, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE TAFT, after stating the case as above, delivered the opinion of the Court.

We live in the jurisdiction of two sovereignties, each having its own system of courts to declare and enforce its laws in common territory. It would be impossible for such courts to fulfill their respective functions without embarrassing conflict unless rules were adopted by them to avoid it. The people for whose benefit these two systems are maintained are deeply interested that each system shall be effective and unhindered in its vindication of its laws. The situation requires, therefore, not only definite rules fixing the powers of the courts in cases of jurisdiction over the same persons and things in actual litigation, but also a spirit of reciprocal comity and mutual assistance to promote due and orderly procedure.

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One accused of crime has a right to a full and fair trial according to the law of the government whose sovereignty he is alleged to have offended, but he has no more than that. He should not be permitted to use the machinery of one sovereignty to obstruct his trial in the courts of the other, unless the necessary operation of such machinery prevents his having a fair trial. He may not complain if one sovereignty waives its strict right to exclusive custody of him for vindication of its laws in order that the other may also subject him to conviction of crime against it. In re Andrews, 236 F. 300; United States v. Marring, 227 F. 314. Such a waiver is a matter that addresses itself solely to the discretion of the sovereignty making it and of its representatives with power to grant it.

One accused of crime, of course, cannot be in two places at the same time. He is entitled to be present at every stage of the trial of himself in each jurisdiction, with full opportunity for defense. Frank v. Mangum, 237 U.S. 309, 341; Lewis v. United States, 146 U.S. 370. If that is accorded him, he cannot complain. The fact that he may have committed two crimes gives him no immunity from prosecution of either.

The chief rule which preserves our two systems of courts from actual conflict of jurisdiction is that the court which first takes the subject matter of the litigation into its control, whether this be person or property, must be permitted to exhaust its remedy, to attain which it assumed control, before the other court shall attempt to take it for its purpose. The principle is stated by Mr. Justice Matthews in Covell v. Heyman, 111 U.S. 176, as follows:

The forbearance which courts of coordinate jurisdiction, administered under a single system, exercise towards each other, whereby [42 S.Ct. 311] conflicts are avoided, by...

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