Commonwealth v. New York Cent. & H.R.r. Co.

Decision Date18 October 1910
Citation206 Mass. 417,92 N.E. 766
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Oct 18, 1910.


John J. Higgins, Dist. Atty., for the Commonwealth.

Geo. H Fernald, Jr., and Frank L. Watson, for defendant.



1. We have no doubt that the district court in which the complaint was made had jurisdiction over the offense charged against the defendant. Its jurisdiction included a misdemeanors committed within its district, except criminal libels and conspiracies. Rev. Laws 1902, c. 160, § 24; Brown's Case, 152 Mass. 1, 24 N.E. 857; Commonwealth v. Prescott, 151 Mass. 60, 23 N.E. 729; Commonwealth v. Murray, 144 Mass. 170, 10 N.E. 802; Commonwealth v. Smith, 138 Mass. 489; Commonwealth v. Carr, 11 Gray, 463. And the offense here charged, a violation of the provisions of St. 1906, c. 463, pt. 2, § 155, being punishable merely by a forfeiture of $100, is a misdemeanor. Rev. Laws, c. 215, § 1. The defendant's contention that the language of Rev. Laws, c. 160, § 24, above referred to, is not to be construed as having any greater effect than would be given to the original statute, therein codified, cannot avail it. That act, St. 1893, c. 396, § 34, gave to district and police courts jurisdiction of 'all crimes and offenses under the degree of felony committed within their respective counties, except conspiracies and libels and cases where a prosecution by indictment or information is required by law.' The cases already referred to show that even under the words of the earlier statute the district court had jurisdiction of the offense, and could prosecute therefor any individual assignee or receiver of a railroad corporation, whether or not it possessed or could acquire jurisdiction over a corporation. Moreover, while it is true that verbal changes in the codification of existing statutes will not affect their construction and that the Legislature will not be presumed to have intended to alter the law unless their language plainly requires that conclusion, yet it is also true that such a construction will be adopted when manifestly required by the altered language of the statute. Great Barrington v. Gibbons, 199 Mass. 527, 529, 85 N.E. 737, and cases cited. Other cases are collected in Savage v. Shaw, 195 Mass. 571, 573, 81 N.E. 303, 122 Am. St. Rep. 272. Where, as here, the language of the Revised Laws 'is distinct, clear, and admits of but one possible interpretation, it must be followed, although it assumes the law to have been as we should not have held it, and although we are not able to ascertain from the reports of the Legislature, its committees or otherwise, that there was any intention to amend or change it.' Pratt v. Street Commissioners of Boston, 139 Mass. 559, 563, 2 N.E. 675, 678; Bent v. Hubbardston, 138 Mass. 99. 'The question is not what were the intention and meaning of the commissioners as to the provision in question, but what was the intention of the Legislature; and this must be ascertained by the language of the statute.' Baker v. Atlas Bank, 9 Metc. 182, 197; Holbrook v. Bliss, 9 Allen, 69, 76. Both branches of this rule are stated by Hammond, J., in Franks v. Edinberg, 185 Mass. 49, 53, 69 N.E. 1058. And see Bate Refrigerating Co. v. Sulzberger, 157 U.S. 1, 39, 15 S.Ct. 508, 39 L.Ed. 601; United States v. Bowen, 100 U.S. 508, 513, 25 L.Ed. 631.

There is no ground for the contention that all criminal offenses in this commonwealth are not included in the two classes of felonies and misdemeanors, or that there must be a third class, to consist of nuisances, either statutory or at common law.

Our attention has been called to the fact that the commissioners on revision did not in their report suggest any change in this statute as it existed before 1901, and that the joint special committee of the Legislature which put the statute into its present form not only manifested no intention to change the existing law, but had adopted an order that 'no proposition attempting a substantial change or modification of existing law' should be entertained without 'a concurrent vote of four-fifths of the members of each branch.' Journal of the Committee, p. iv. This circumstance is of weight in construing the statute as finally passed; but it cannot override the plain meaning of the words afterwards used. This order was merely a rule adopted by the Legislature for its own guidance; and the validity of the statutes as finally adopted in no way depends upon the question whether that rule was or was not complied with. Sinclair v. Fall River, 198 Mass. 248, 256, 84 N.E. 453; Wheelock v. Lowell, 196 Mass. 220, 230, 81 N.E. 977, 124 Am. St. Rep. 543; Chandler v. Lawrence, 128 Mass. 213; Holt v. Somerville, 127 Mass. 408, 411.

We have discussed this question at greater length than was perhaps necessary by reason of the very able and ingenious argument of the defendant's counsel; but we entertain no doubt of the result.

2. It is earnestly contended that the district court had no jurisdiction over this defendant; that by the common law the only mode of criminal procedure against a corporation was by indictment, which with us can be found only in the superior court; and that the rule never has been changed by statute in this commonwealth. It is contended that no such change has been made by Rev. Laws, c. 220, §§ 35, 36, which provide that 'if a corporation after being duly served with process fails to appear and answer to an indictment or complaint which is brought against it under the laws of this commonwealth, its default shall be recorded, the charges in the indictment or complaint taken to be true, and judgment shall be rendered accordingly,' and that 'if judgment is rendered against a corporation upon an indictment or complaint under the laws of this commonwealth, the court may issue a warrant of distress to compel the payment of the penalty prescribed by law with interest.' It is argued that these sections made no change in the former statutes (Pub. St. 1882, c. 215, §§ 30, 31), which referred merely to indictments against corporations without any mention of complaints, both because neither the commissioners on revision nor the joint special committee of the Legislature which added the word 'complaint' manifested any intention to change the law, and because no method of procedure against corporations by complaint in the district, municipal or police courts was provided, as it is claimed would have been done if the Legislature had intended to establish such a procedure. And it has been argued that just as no statute has been passed expressly giving to these inferior courts jurisdiction over corporations, so the whole method prescribed by statute for criminal proceedings in these courts, for the service of process and the committal or holding to bail of defendants, for the binding over for trial in the superior court, as the inferior courts have a discretionary power to do in all criminal cases in which guilt has been shown (Rev. Laws, c. 160, § 34), and for the taking of appeals from their judgments to the superior court, which all convicted defendants have the right to do, is inapplicable to the case of a corporation and cannot be applied thereto without a violation of some of the terms of the statutes. These arguments have received a careful consideration.

In our opinion it cannot be maintained that the only way of instituting criminal proceedings against a corporation is by indictment. Looking first at the cases relied upon for the support of the defendant's contention as matter of authority, we do not find that any of them lay down such a proposition. Rex v. Clifton, 5 T. R. 498; Rex v Great Broughton, 5 Burr, 700; Queen v. Birmingham & Gloucester Railway, 3 Q. B. 223; Queen v. Great North of England Railway, 9 Q. B. 315; State v. Morris & Essex R. R., 23 N. J. Law, 360; Com. v. Vermont & Massachusetts R. R., 4 Gray, 22, 24. In some of these cases a conviction upon an indictment against a corporation or the inhabitants of a parish was reversed; in others it was sustained; but in none of them was it decided or declared that a corporation could be prosecuted criminally only by indictment. Nor, after a somewhat prolonged search, have we been able to find any such decision. Indeed, the trend of authority, especially in recent years, seems to us to be the other way. A corporation may be proceeded against for a criminal contempt of court, not only without indictment, but even without a formal complaint, upon the mere motion of the court against which the contempt has been committed. Telegram Newspaper Co. v. Com., 172 Mass. 294, 52 N.E. 445, 44 L. R. A. 159, 70 Am. St. Rep. 280. See Globe Newspaper Co. v. Com., 188 Mass. 449, 74 N.E. 682. In Hawke v. E. Hulton & Co., [1909] 2 K. B. 93, while it was held that a corporation was not to be adjudged a rogue or vagabond and liable to punishment by imprisonment and whipping, it was yet plainly intimated by the court that it might be prosecuted upon information before a magistrate by way of summary process, a mode of procedure which we understand to be similar to our method of complaint before an inferior court for offenses within its limited jurisdiction. This was put upon the ground that the word 'persons' would be taken to include corporations unless a contrary intent appears. See Rev. Laws, c. 8, § 4, cl. 5. So in United States v. Kelso (D. C.) 86 F. 304, the court sustained an information filed by the district attorney against a corporation for an alleged violation of the federal eight-hour law, and held that a court having jurisdiction of a particular crime may, when that crime has been committed by a corporation, obtain jurisdiction of that corporation by any appropriate writ. This...

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