321 U.S. 383 (1944), 447, Johnson v. Yellow Cab Transit Co.

Docket Nº:No. 447
Citation:321 U.S. 383, 64 S.Ct. 622, 88 L.Ed. 814
Party Name:Johnson v. Yellow Cab Transit Co.
Case Date:March 13, 1944
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 383

321 U.S. 383 (1944)

64 S.Ct. 622, 88 L.Ed. 814



Yellow Cab Transit Co.

No. 447

United States Supreme Court

March 13, 1944

Argued January 6, 7, 1944




Intoxicating liquors in transit from a consignor in Illinois to a consignee at Fort Sill Military Reservation were seized in Oklahoma by state officers. The carrier instituted a proceeding in the federal district court for the return of the liquors and to restrain further interference with their transportation to destination.


1. The transportation of the liquors through Oklahoma violated no law of that State, and the seizure was illegal. P. 386.

2. Upon the facts, the purchase and delivery of the liquors were not in violation of 10 U.S.C. § 1350. P. 388.

3. Applicability of the federal assimilative crimes statute is not decided. P. 390.

4. Upon the record, the carrier, which had acted in good faith, was not barred by the "clean hands" doctrine, and was entitled in this proceeding to the relief sought. Pp. 387, 392.

137 F.2d 274 affirmed.

Page 384

Certiorari, 320 U.S. 731, to review the affirmance of a decree of injunction, 48 F.Supp. 594.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners are officials of Oklahoma State and Oklahoma County concerned with enforcement of Oklahoma's liquor laws. Respondent is a common carrier by motor vehicle authorized by the Interstate Commerce Commission to transport in interstate commerce various commodities, including wines and liquors. See U.S.C. Title 49, c. 8. In regular course of business, the respondent carrier undertook to transport 225 cases of wines and liquors from East St. Louis, Illinois, through Missouri, into Oklahoma and thence to a consignee at Fort Sill, a military reservation within the boundaries of Oklahoma. While the vehicle carrying the liquors was momentarily stopped at Oklahoma City for the purpose of loading and unloading other freight, the petitioner officials forcibly seized and took away the liquors.

The carrier filed a complaint in the federal District Court alleging that the seizure constituted an unlawful interference with its authorized interstate transportation, and praying that the Court order the officials to return the liquors so that it might deliver them to the consignee at Fort Sill. The answer to the complaint, in substance, admitted the material facts relative to the shipment and seizure of the liquors, but denied the allegation of the complaint that the seizure was unlawful. The answer did not allege that judicial proceedings concerning the seized liquor were pending, or were to be commenced, in an

Page 385

Oklahoma state court. After a trial on stipulated facts, the District Court ordered the liquors returned to the carrier and forbade the officials to interfere with completion of the shipment. 48 F.Supp. 594. The Circuit Court of Appeals, one Judge dissenting, affirmed. 137 F.2d 274.

Questions presented in the petition for review concerning important state and federal relationships with regard to federal enclaves prompted us to grant certiorari. 320 U.S. 731. Argument has revealed, however, that the determinative issues are more narrow: (1) did transportation of the liquors through Oklahoma violate that State's law so as to justify their seizure? (2) should the District Court have denied the carrier equitable relief because of the "unclean hands" doctrine, even though seizure of the liquors by the officials was illegal? This second question rests on the disputed premise that introduction of the liquors into Fort Sill would have violated the laws of the United States.

Petitioners do not claim, nor could they claim, that either of these two separate questions should be decided in their favor on the ground that Oklahoma has power to control liquor transactions on the Fort Sill Reservation. With certain minor exceptions not here material, Oklahoma ceded to the United States in 1913 whatever authority it ever could have exercised [64 S.Ct. 624] in the Reservation.1 The Oklahoma Supreme Court has recognized that the general power to govern the Fort Sill area is vested in the United States, not in Oklahoma,2 and our decisions lead to the same conclusion.3

Page 386

First. Since power to govern Fort Sill is in the United States, and since the seized liquors were not to be sold, delivered, or otherwise disposed of in Oklahoma proper, as distinguished from Fort Sill, the only Oklahoma laws called to our attention which could have justified the seizure are those which apply to liquor transportation. No Oklahoma law purports on its face to prohibit or regulate interstate shipments of liquor into and through the state to another state, or to an area subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States. And we were informed at the bar by Oklahoma's legal representative that no state statute had been construed by any state court as applying to such through shipments. Oklahoma law does make it unlawful

to import, bring, transport, or cause to be brought or transported into the State . . . intoxicating liquor . . . without a permit . . . as hereinafter provided.

Okla.Stat. 1941, Title 37, § 41. The argument is that the Oklahoma legislature intended this statute to apply to liquor imported into the Fort Sill Reservation because the latter is located within the exterior boundaries of Oklahoma. Were this statute intended to do no more than provide a means whereby the state could protect itself from illegal liquor diversions within the area which Oklahoma has power to govern, the interpretation asked might well be an acceptable one. Duckworth v. Arkansas, 314 U.S. 390; Carter v. Virginia, 321 U.S. 131. But the statute has no such limited purpose. No permit to transport liquor into Oklahoma can be obtained at all except for scientific, mechanical, medicinal, industrial, or sacramental purposes. Okl.Stat. 1941, Title 37, § 42. To construe the state statute in the manner urged would be to say that, although Oklahoma admittedly has no power directly to regulate the liquor traffic on the Reservation, the Oklahoma legislature intended practically to exclude from the Reservation liquor which might be put to legal uses under controlling United States laws. Neither the words nor

Page 387

the scheme of the statute in question, nor any other relevant material pointed out to us indicates that the Oklahoma legislature had such a purpose. Had the legislature expressed such a purpose, questions would be raised which we need not here consider. See Collins v. Yosemite Park & Curry Co., 304 U.S. 518, 533; Pacific Coast Dairy, Inc. v. Department of Agriculture, 318 U.S. 285, 295. Consequently, we find no justification for the seizure in Oklahoma law.

Second. But it is said that, despite the fact the seizure was illegal and wholly without justification, the consignee could not have received the liquors without violating the laws of the United States, and, for that reason, the District Court should have denied the carrier any relief under the "clean hands" doctrine.

We may assume that, because of the clean hands doctrine, a federal court should not, in an ordinary case, lend its judicial power to a plaintiff who seeks to invoke that power for the purpose of consummating a transaction in clear violation of law.4 But this does not mean that courts must always permit a defendant wrongdoer to retain the profits of his [64 S.Ct. 625] wrongdoing merely because the plaintiff himself is possibly guilty of transgressing the law in the transactions involved.5 The maxim that he who comes into equity must come with clean hands is not applied by way of punishment for an unclean litigant, but "upon considerations that make for the advancement of right and justice." Keystone Driller Co. v. General Excavator Co., 290 U.S. 240, 245. It is not a rigid formula which "trammels the free and just exercise of discretion." Ibid., 245-246.

Page 388

Therefore, before deciding the applicability of the maxim to the case at hand, we must examine the particular transactions and circumstances involved, together with the federal laws which are alleged to taint these transactions with illegality.

As shown by the stipulated facts in this record, the circumstances of the liquor shipment were as follows: Fort Sill had an Officers' Club, which provided, among other things, an officers' mess, living quarters for some Officers, and other customary club facilities. Several hundred Officer-members gave to the Club Secretary, himself an Officer, separate written orders for liquor, together with money or checks in payment for the respective orders. Acting for the Officer-members, the Secretary telephoned from Fort Sill to a dealer at East St. Louis, Illinois, and ordered the liquors shipped to the Club. The dealer delivered the liquors to the respondent carrier under a uniform through bill of lading. It was this shipment which the state officials seized. Had the shipment not been seized, it would have arrived at the Club for delivery to the several Officers who had paid for it.

It is first contended that purchase and delivery of the liquors was in violation of U.S.C. Title 10, § 1350, set out in the margin.6 The agreed facts, summarized above, sufficiently show that the transactions were not in violation of this statute.

Petitioners next argue that the liquor transactions here involved were in violation of the assimilative crimes statute.7 This statute, it is said, adopts all of the various

Page 389

penal statutes of Oklahoma relating to liquor and makes them the federal law applicable to the Fort Sill Reservation. Cf. United States v. Press Publishing Co., 219 U.S. 1...

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