274 U.S. 445 (1927), 304, Cline v. Frink Dairy Company,

Docket NºNo. 304
Citation274 U.S. 445, 47 S.Ct. 681, 71 L.Ed. 1146
Party NameCline v. Frink Dairy Company,
Case DateMay 31, 1927
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 445

274 U.S. 445 (1927)

47 S.Ct. 681, 71 L.Ed. 1146



Frink Dairy Company,

No. 304

United States Supreme Court

May 31, 1927

Argued April 29, 1927




1. A federal court of equity may enjoin state criminal proceedings under a statute alleged to be unconstitutional when their prevention is essential to the safeguarding of rights of property, and when the circumstances are exceptional and the danger of irreparable loss is both great and immediate. P. 451.

2. The injunction cannot be supported, however, insofar as it embraces proceedings pending in the state criminal court which were instituted before the suit was begun. P. 452.

3. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment imposes upon the states the obligation of so framing their criminal statutes that those to whom they are addressed may know what standard of conduct is intended to be required. P. 458.

4. The Colorado Anti-Trust Law denounces and punishes conspiracies and combinations, in restraint of trade; to fix prices, prevent competition, etc., except when necessary in order to enable participants to obtain a reasonable profit from products dealt in, etc. Held that the exception leaves the statute without a fixed standard of guilt, rendering it void. P. 453.

Reversed in part, affirmed in part.

Appeal from a decree of the district court, three judges sitting, permanently enjoining the appellant district attorney from enforcing the Colorado Anti-Trust Law against the plaintiff dairy corporations and individuals.

Page 449

TAFT, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE TAFT delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a direct appeal under § 238 of the Judicial Code, as amended by the Act of February 13, 1925, c. 229, 43 Stat. 936, from a final decree of the United States District Court of Colorado, three judges sitting, granting a permanent injunction against the enforcement by a state officer of a state law on the ground of its unconstitutionality. The bill was brought by the Frink Dairy Company, the Windsor Farm Dairy Company, and the Climax Dairy Company, corporations of Colorado, and H. Brown Cannon, Clarence Frink, A. T. McClintock, and Morris Robinson, citizens and residents of the same state, against Foster Cline, the district attorney for the

City and County of Denver, Colorado.

The bill alleges that the suit involves for decision the question of the validity under the Constitution of the United States of what is known as the Colorado Anti-Trust Act, being chapter 161 of the Session Laws of the State of Colorado for 1913, approved April 7th of that

Page 450

year. It avers that the three dairy companies have been separately conducting for years, in Denver, Colorado, and its vicinity, the sale and distribution of milk, butter, and all manner of dairy products; that each has invested in its business more than $100,000; that they are also engaged in interstate commerce, buying and selling from without the limits of the state; that the individual plaintiffs, Connon, Frink, and Morrison, are respectively officers and stockholders of the three plaintiff companies; that McClintock, the other individual plaintiff, is an officer and stockholder of the Beatrice Creamery Company, a corporation of Delaware, also in the dairy business in Denver; that the individual plaintiffs, experienced dairymen, by painstaking effort, fair dealing, and careful management, have gained thousands of customers and a well established trade, and that their companies, in addition to their tangible property and assets, have good wills of great value. The bill sets out in full the Colorado antitrust law, which punishes as a crime combinations of persons and corporations to restrain trade or commerce, with certain exceptions, and makes it the duty of the defendant, the district attorney, to prosecute alleged violations thereof, and to institute actions for forfeiture of charters of associations engaged therein. All contracts violating the act are avoided; violation of the act is made a good defense to a suit for merchandise that was sold in pursuance of a combination under it, and a right of action for damages against the combiners is given to anyone injured by the combination. One charge of the bill, among others, is that the act violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution in that it deprives the plaintiffs of their liberty without due process of law because it is indefinite and uncertain, and fails to fix any informing standard of criminality.

The bill alleges that Foster Cline, the defendant, in his capacity as district attorney of Denver City and

Page 451

County, has been, and still is, claiming that the plaintiffs and their competitors have been and now are acting in violation of the antitrust law; that he has caused an information to be filed in the criminal division of the District Court of the City and County of Denver, in which the plaintiffs and the Beatrice Creamery Company, a Delaware corporation, are charged with conspiracy to violate the Anti-Trust Act; that he expects to press the case to trial; that, since the case was instituted the grand jury has been in session, and many witnesses summoned and questioned about the plaintiffs' milk business; that the defendant Cline has threatened to, and, unless restrained by the court will, institute further prosecutions, file further informations, and attempt to procure indictments of the plaintiffs by the grand jury, and that Cline, by this multiplicity of criminal suits and prosecutions, as well as by the civil suits for forfeiture of the corporate plaintiffs' charters he has threatened to bring, has already inflicted serious loss to the businesses and properties of the plaintiffs, and that they will be irreparably and immeasureably damaged thereby unless he is restrained.

A motion to dismiss was made by the defendant on the ground that the bill presented no case for equitable relief. On the hearing before the three judges, a preliminary injunction was issued and the motion to dismiss was denied. The defendant standing upon his motion to dismiss and declining to plead further, a decree for a permanent injunction was entered, and this is an appeal from that decree.

The first question is whether the practice and precedents in equity justified the granting of relief by injunction where one criminal prosecution had been begun and where many others, together with suits for forfeiture of corporate franchises, were threatened. The general rule is that a court of equity is without jurisdiction to restrain criminal proceedings to try the same right that is in issue

Page 452

before it; but an exception to this rule exists when the prevention of such prosecutions under alleged unconstitutional [47 S.Ct. 683] enactments is essential to the safeguarding of rights of property and when the circumstances are exceptional and the danger of irreparable loss is both great and immediate. Fenner v. Boykin, 271 U.S. 240, 243; Packard v. Banton, 264 U.S. 140; Hygrade Provision Co. v. Sherman, 266 U.S. 497, 502; Terrace v. Thompson, 263 U.S. 197, 214; Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123; Davis & Farnum Mfg. Co. v. Los Angeles, 189 U.S. 207, 218; Dobbins v. Los Angeles, 195 U.S. 223, 236, 241; In re Sawyer, 124 U.S. 200, 209, 211.

The affidavits in support of the bill were very full in their showing that the district attorney, by his action and threats, had already greatly injured their properties and their businesses. They present a case in which the question of the validity of the act under which, if invalid, great injuries to properties and businesses are being unjustly inflicted should be promptly settled. We think the basis for equitable jurisdiction is made sufficiently clear.

It is objected, however, that the injunction cannot be supported under the authorities insofar as it is directed against actual proceedings pending in the criminal court. One of the district judges below dissented from this part of the decree. Of course, the injunction is not only against actual prosecution, but is also against a multiplicity of future suits and the threatened proceedings for forfeiture by which the Attorney General proposes to end the businesses of all the plaintiffs, and the objection would only lead to a narrowing of the decree. The majority in the district court were influenced by a remark of this Court in Davis & Farnum Co. v. Los Angeles, supra, in speaking of a bill to restrain invasion of rights of property by the enforcement of an unconstitutional law, in which the Court said:

Page 453

It would seem that, if there were jurisdiction in a court of equity to enjoin the invasion of property rights through the instrumentality of an unconstitutional law, that jurisdiction would not be ousted by the fact that the state had chosen to assert its power to enforce such law by indictment or other criminal proceeding.

This semble does not seem to have received the approval of the Court in Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, where it was said:

It is further objected (and the objection really forms part of the contention that the state cannot be sued) that a court of equity has no jurisdiction to enjoin criminal proceedings, by indictment or otherwise, under the state law. This, as a general rule, is true. But there are exceptions. When such indictment or proceeding is brought to enforce an alleged unconstitutional statute which is the subject matter of inquiry in a suit already pending in a federal court, the latter court, having first obtained jurisdiction over the subject matter, has the right, in both civil and criminal cases, to hold and maintain such jurisdiction, to the exclusion of all other courts until its duty is fully performed. Prout v. Starr, 188 U.S. 537, 544. But the federal court cannot, of course, interfere in a case where the proceedings were already pending in a state court. ...

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