United States v. Lee

Decision Date31 May 1927
Docket NumberNo. 752,752
Citation71 L.Ed. 1202,274 U.S. 559,47 S.Ct. 746
PartiesUNITED STATES v. LEE
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

The Attorney General and Mr. George R. Farnum, Asst. Atty. Gen., for petitioner.

Mr. Justice BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In the federal court for Massachusetts, Lee and two others, all apparently American citizens, were indicated for conspiring within the United States to violate §§ 591 and 593 of the Tariff Act of 1922, c. 356, 42 Stat. 858, 981, 982 (Comp. St. §§ 5841h-10, 5841h-12, 5841h-13), and § 3 of the National Prohibition Act October 28, 1919, c. 85, title II, 41 Stat. 305, 308 (Comp. St. § 10138 1/2 aa). The defendants pleaded not guilty. Lee and one other were convicted. Lee sued out a writ of error. The Circuit Court of Appeals (one judge dissenting) vacated the judgment on the ground that evidence had been admitted which was obtained by an illegal search and seizure. Lee v. United States, 14 F.(2d) 400. This court granted a writ of certiorari. 273 U. S. 686, 47 S. Ct. 336, 71 L. Ed. —.

On the afternoon of February 16, 1925, the boatswain of a Coast Guard patrol boat saw a motorboat of the numbered type proceed in a southeasterly direction from Gloucester harbor. He followed her at a distance of 500 yards: lost sight of her after sundown, apparently in a fog, at a point about 20 miles east of Boston Light; and discovered her latter alongside the schooner L'Homme in a region commonly spoken of as Rum Row, at a point 24 miles from land. On board the motorboat were Lee, two associates, and 71 cases of grain alcohol. The boatswain arrested the three men, seized the motorboat, and took her with them and the liquor to Boston. There this indictment was found. It does not appear that the government instituted proceedings to forfeit either the motorboat or the liquor. The motorboat which had a length of about 30 feet was registered in Lee's name.

The boatswain testified that when he discovered the motorboat alongside the L'Homme:

'I put a search light on her and told those aboard the motorboat to put up their hands. In the boat I found the three defendants, McNeill, Viera, and Lee. I looked the boat over and found a number of cans of alcohol on board it. I searched the defendants for weapons and found none. I put two of my men on board the motorboat, and took the boat and the defendants to Boston.'

The liquor does not appear to have been put in evidence. The deputy surveyor of the port testified that, upon the motorboat's arrival in Boston, he examined the cases on board and found that they contained alcohol, 95 degrees proof, and that Lee, when interrogated, said:

'I ran the engine, and the first thing I knew I was alongside the schooner. I did not see any cases on our boat until captured by the revenue cutter.'

The testimony of the deputy surveyor as to what he found on the motorboat, and that of the boatswain as to what he found upon his examination of the motorboat at the time of his command to those on board to throw up their hands, was admitted over Lee's objection and subject to exception duly made.

The Circuit Court of Appeals, expressing disagreement with the conclusion reached in The Underwriter, 13 F.(2d) 433, held that the Coast Guard is not authorized to visit and search American vessels on the high seas more than 12 miles from the coast; that the seizure there made was without authority; that it was illegal, since it did not appear that the government had ratified it by the institution of legal proceedings to enforce the forfeiture; that, the search and seizure having been illegal, knowledge gained as a result of the illegal search could not be put in evidence (Weeks v. United States, 232 U. S. 383, 34 S. Ct. 341, 58 L. Ed. 652, L. R. A. 1915B, 834, Ann. Cas. 1915C, 1177), and that the testimony of the deputy surveyor and of the boatswain was wrongly admitted.

The government contends that the Coast Guard has authority to visit, search and seize an American vessel on the high seas beyond the 12-mile limit when probable cause exists that our law is being violated; that it has authority also to arrest persons on such vessel whom there is reason to believe are engaged in committing a felony; that here probable cause was shown that the crime, a felony, was being committed; that if any search, within the meaning of the Constitution, was made of the motorboat before she reached port, it was valid as an incident of a lawful arrest of persons whom the officer had reasonable cause to believe were engaged in...

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