Lawton v. Steele

Citation152 U.S. 133,38 L.Ed. 385,14 S.Ct. 499
Decision Date05 March 1894
Docket NumberNo. 203,203
PartiesLAWTON et al. v. STEELE
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Statement by Mr. Justice BROWN:

This was an action at law instituted in the supreme court for the county of Jefferson, by the plaintiffs in error against the defendant in error, together with Edward L. Sargent and Richard U. Sherman, for the conversion of 15 hoop and fyke nets, of the alleged value of $525. Defendants Steele and Sargent interposed a general denial. Defendant Sherman pleaded that he, with three others, constituted the commissioners of fisheries of the state of New York, with power to give directions to game and fish protectors with regard to the enforcement of the game law; that defendant Steele was a game and fish protector duly appointed by the governor of the state of New York; and that the nets sued for were taken possession of by said Steele, as such game and fish protector, upon the ground that they were maintained upon the waters of the state in violation of existing statutes for the protection of fish and game, and thereby became a public nuisance.

The facts were undisputed. The nets were the property of the plaintiffs, and were taken away by the defendant Steele, and destroyed. At the time of the taking, most of the nets were in the waters of the Black River bay, being used for fishing purposes, and the residue were upon the shore of that bay, having recently been used for the same purpose. The plaintiffs were fishermen, and the defendant Steele was a state game and fish protector. The taking and destruction of the nets were claimed to have been justifiable under the statutes of the state relating to the protection of game and fish. Plaintiffs claimed there was no justification under the statutes, and, if they constituted such justification upon their face, they were unconstitutional. Defendant Sherman was a state fish commissioner. Defendant Sargent was president of the Jefferson County Fish & Game Association. Plaintiffs claimed these defendants to be liable upon the ground that they instigated, incited, or directed the taking and destruction of the nets.

Upon trial before a jury a verdict was rendered, subject to the opinion of the court, in favor of the plaintiffs against defendant Steele for the sum of $216, and in favor of defendants Sargent and Sherman. A motion for a new trial was denied, and judgment entered upon the verdict for $216 damages and $166.09 costs. On appeal to the general term this judgment was reversed, and a new trial ordered, and a further appeal allowed to the court of appeals. On appeal to the court of appeals the order of the general term granting a new trial was affirmed, and judgment absolute ordered for the defendant. 119 N. Y. 226, 23 N. E. 878. Plaintiffs thereupon sued out a writ of error from this court.

Levi H. Brown, for plaintiffs in error.

Elon R. Brown, for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice BROWN, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

This case involves the constitutionality of an act of the legislature of the state of New York known as chapter 591, Laws N. Y. 1880, as amended by chapter 317, Laws N. Y. 1883, entitled 'An act for the appointment of game and fish protectors.'

By a subsequent act enacted in 1886:

'Section 1. No person shall at any time kill or take from the waters of Henderson bay or Lake Ontario, within one mile from the shore, between the most westerly point of Pillar Point and the boundary line between the counties of Jefferson and Oswego, * * * any fish of any kind by any device or means whatever otherwise than by hook and line or rod held in hand. But this section shall not apply to or prohibit the catching of minnows for bait, providing the person using nets for that purpose shall not set them, and shall throw back any trout, bass, or any other game fish taken, and keep only chubs, dace, suckers, or shiners.

'Sec. 2. Any person violating any of the provisions of this act shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and liable to a penalty of $50 for each offence.' Laws 1886, c. 141.

By the act of 1880, as amended by the act of 1883:

'Sec. 2. Any net, pound, or other means or device for taking or capturing fish, or whereby they may be taken or captured, set, put, floated, had, found, or maintained in or upon any of the waters of this state, or upon the shores of or islands in any of the waters of this state, in violation of any existing or hereafter enacted statutes or laws for the protection of fish, is hereby declared to be and is a public nuisance, and may be abated and summarily destroyed by any person, and it shall be the duty of each and every protector aforesaid and of every game constable to seize and romove and forthwith destroy the same, * * * and no action for damages shall lie or be maintained against any person for or on account of any such seizure and destruction.'

This last section was alleged to be unconstitutional and void for three reasons: (1) As depriving the citizen of his property without due process of law; (2) as being in restraint of the liberty of the citizen; (3) as being an interference with the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States.

The trial court ruled the first of the above propositions in plaintiffs' favor, and the others against them, and judgment was thereupon entered in favor of the plaintiffs.

The constitutionality of the section in question was, however, sustained by the general term and by the court of appeals, upon the ground of its being a lawful exercise of the police power of the state.

The extent and limits of what is known as the 'police power' have been a fruitful subject of discussion in the appellate courts of nearly every state in the Union. It is universally conceded to include everything essential to the public safety, health, and morals, and to justify the destruction or abatement, by summary proceedings, of whatever may be regarded as a public nuisance. Under this power it has been held that the state may order the destruction of a house falling to decay, or otherwise endangering the lives of passers-by; the demolition of such as are in the path of a conflagration; the slaughter of diseased cattle; the destruction of decayed or unwholesome food; the prohibition of wooden buildings in cities; the regulation of railways and other means of public conveyance, and of interments in burial grounds; the restriction of objectionable trades to certain localities; the compulsory vaccination of children; the confinement of the insane or those afflicted with contagious diseases; the restraint of vagrants, beggars, and habitual drunkards; the suppression of obscene publications and houses of ill fame; and the prohibition of gambling houses and places where intoxicating liquors are sold. Beyond this, however, the state may interfere whereover the public interests demand it, and in this particular a large discretion is necessarily vested in the legislature to determine, not only what the interests of the public require, but what measures are necessary for the protection of such interests. Barbier v. Connolly, 113 U. S. 27, 5 Sup. Ct. 357; Kidd v. Pearson, 128 U. S. 1, 9 Sup. Ct. 6. To justify the state in thus interposing its authority in behalf of the public, it must appear—First, that the interests of the public generally, as distinguished from those of a particular class, require such interference; and, second, that the means are reasonably necessary for the accomplishment of the purpose, and not unduly oppressive upon individuals. The legislature may not, under the guise of protecting the public interests, arbitrarily interfere with private business, or impose unusual and unnecessary restrictions upon lawful occupations; in other words, its determination as to what is a proper exercise of its police powers is not final or conclusive, but is subject to the supervision of the courts. Thus, an act requiring the master of a vessel arriving from a foreign port to report the name, birthplace, and occupation of every passenger, and the owner of such vessel to give a bond for every passenger so reported, conditioned to indemnify the state against any expense for the support of the persons named for four years thereafter, was held by this court to be indefensible as an exercise of the police power, and to be void as interfering with the right of congress to regulate commerce with foreign nations. Henderson v. Mayor, 92 U. S. 259. A similar statute of California, requiring a bond for certain classes of passengers described, among which were 'lewd and debauched women,' was also held to show very clearly that the purpose was to extort money from a large class of passengers, or to prevent their immigration to California altogether, and was held to invade the right of congress. Chy Lung v. Freeman, 92 U. S. 275. So, in Railroad Co. v. Husen, 95 U. S. 465, a statute of Missouri which prohibited the driving of Texas, Mexican, or Indian cattle into the state between certain dates in each year was held to be in conflict with the commerce clause of the constitution, and not a legitimate exercise of the police powers of the state, though it was admitted that the state might, for its self-protection, prevent persons or animals having contagious diseases from entering its territory. In Rockwell v. Nearing, 35 N. Y. 302, an act of the legislature of New York which authorized the seizure and sale, without judicial process, of all animals found trespassing within private inclosures, was held to be obnoxious to the constitutional provision that no person should be deprived of his property without due process of law. See, also, Austin v. Murray, 16 Pick. 121; Watertown v. Mayo, 109 Mass. 315; Slaughterhouse Cases, 16 Wall. 36; In re Cheesebrough, 78 N. Y. 232; Brown v. Perkins, 12 Gray, 89. In all these cases the acts were held to be invalid as involving an unnecessary invasion of the rights of property, and a practical inhibition of certain...

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