Boyd v. United States
116 U.S. 616 (1886)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616 (1886)

Boyd v. United States

Argued December 11, 14, 1886

Decided February 1, 1886

116 U.S. 616




The 6th section of the act of June 22, 1874, entitled "An act to amend the customs revenue laws," &c., which section authorizes a court of the United States, in revenue cases, on motion of the government attorney, to require the defendant or claimant to produce in court his private books, invoice and papers, or else the allegations of the attorney to be taken as confessed: Held, to be unconstitutional and void a applied to suits for penalties or to establish a forfeiture of the party's goods, as being repugnant to the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution.

Where proceedings were in rem to establish a forfeiture of certain goods alleged to have been fraudulently imported without paying the duties thereon, pursuant to the 12th section of said act: Held, That an order of the court made under said 5th section, requiring the claimants of the goods to produce a certain invoice in court for the inspection of the government attorney, and to be offered in evidence by him, was an unconstitutional exercise of authority, and that the inspection of the invoice by the attorney, and its admission in evidence, were erroneous and unconstitutional proceedings.

It does not require actual entry upon premises and search for and seizure of papers to constitute an unreasonable search and seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment; a compulsory production of a party's private books and papers to be used against himself or his property in a criminal or penal proceeding, or for a forfeiture, is within the spirit and meaning of the Amendment.

It is equivalent to a compulsory production of papers to make the nonproduction of them a confession of the allegations which it is pretended they will prove.

A proceeding to forfeit a person's goods for an offence against the laws, though civil in form, and whether in rem or in personam, is a "criminal case" within the meaning of that part of the Fifth Amendment which declares that no person "shall be compelled, in any criminal case, to be a witness against himself."

The seizure or compulsory production of a man's private papers to be used in evidence against him is equivalent to compelling him to be a witness against himself, and, in a prosecution for a crime, penalty or forfeiture, is equally within the prohibition of the Fifth Amendment.

Both amendments relate to the personal security of the citizen. They nearly run into, and mutually throw light upon, each other. When the thing forbidden in the Fifth Amendment, namely, compelling a man to be a witness against himself, is the object of a search and seizure of his private papers, it is an "unreasonable search and seizure" within the Fourth Amendment.

Page 116 U. S. 617

Search and seizure af a man' private paper to be used in evidence for the purpose of convicting him of a crime, recovering a penalty, or of forfeiting his property is totally different from the search and seizure of stolen goods, dutiable articles on which the duties have not been paid, and the like, which rightfully belong to the custody of the law.

Constitutional provision for the security of person and property should be liberally construed.

This was an information against thirty-five cases of polished plate glass. The facts which make the case are stated in the opinion of the court. Judgment in favor of the United States. The claimants sued out this writ of error.

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY delivered the opinion of the court.

This was an information filed by the District Attorney of the United States in the District Court for the Southern District of New York, in July, 1884, in a cause of seizure and forfeiture of property, against thirty-five cases of plate glass, seized by the collector as forfeited to the United States, under § 12 of the "Act to amend the customs revenue laws, and to repeal moieties," passed June 22, 1874, 18 Stat. 186.

It is declared by that section that any owner, importer, consignee, &c., who shall, with intent to defraud the revenue, make, or attempt to make, any entry of imported merchandise by means of any fraudulent or false invoice, affidavit, letter or paper, or by means of any false statement, written or verbal, or who shall be guilty of any willful act or omission by means whereof the United States shall be deprived of the lawful duties, or any portion thereof, accruing upon the merchandise, or any portion thereof, embraced or referred to in such invoice, affidavit, letter, paper, or statement, or affected by such act or omission, shall for each offence be fined in any sum not exceeding $5,000 nor less than $50, or be imprisoned for any time not exceeding two years, or both; and, in addition to such fine, such merchandise shall be forfeited.

The charge was that the goods in question were imported

Page 116 U. S. 618

into the United States to the port of New York, subject to the payment of duties, and that the owners or agents of said merchandise, or other person unknown, committed the alleged fraud, which was described in the words of the statute. The plaintiffs in error entered a claim for the goods, and pleaded that they did not become forfeited in manner and form as alleged. On the trial of the cause, it became important to show the quantity and value of the glass contained in twenty-nine cases previously imported. To do this, the district attorney offered in evidence an order made by the District Judge under § 5 of the same act of June 2, 1874, directing notice under seal of the court to be given to the claimants, requiring them to produce the invoice of the twenty-nine cases. The claimants, in obedience to the notice, but objecting to its validity and to the constitutionality of the law, produced the invoice, and. when it was offered in evidence by the district attorney. they objected to its reception on the ground that, in a suit for forfeiture, no evidence can be compelled from the claimants themselves, and also that the statute, so far as it compels production of evidence to be used against the claimants, is unconstitutional and void.

The evidence being received, and the trial closed, the jury found a verdict for the United States, condemning the thirty-five cases of glass which were seized, and judgment of forfeiture was given. This judgment was affirmed by the Circuit Court, and the decision of that court is now here for review.

As the question raised upon the order for the production by the claimants of the invoice of the twenty-nine cases of glass, and the proceedings had thereon, is not only an important one in the determination of the present case, but is a very grave question of constitutional law, involving the personal security, and privileges and immunities of the citizen, we will set forth the order at large. After the title of the court and term, it reads as follows, to-wit:

"The United States of America"


"E. A. B., 1-35, Thirty-five Vases of Plate Glass."

"Whereas the attorney of the United States for the Southern

Page 116 U. S. 619

District of New York has filed in this court a written motion in the above-entitled action, showing that said action is a suit or proceeding other than criminal, arising under the customs revenue laws of the United States, and not for penalties, now pending undetermined in this court, and that, in his belief, a certain invoice or paper belonging to and under the control of the claimants herein will tend to prove certain allegations set forth in said written motion, hereto annexed, made by him on behalf of the United States in said action, to-wit, the invoice from the Union Plate Glass Company or its agents, covering the twenty-nine cases of plate glass marked G.H.B., imported from Liverpool, England into the port of New York in the vessel Baltic, and entered by E. A. Boyd & Sons at the office of the collector of customs of the port and collection district aforesaid on April 7th, 1884, on entry No. 47,108:"

"Now, therefore, by virtue of the power in the said court vested by section 5 of the act of June 22, 1874, entitled 'An act to amend the customs-revenue laws and to repeal moieties,' it is ordered that a notice under the seal of this court, and signed by the clerk thereof, be issued to the claimants, requiring them to produce the invoice or paper aforesaid before this court in the courtrooms thereof in the United States post-office and courthouse building in the city of New York on October 16th, 1884, at eleven o'clock a.m., and thereafter at such other times as the court shall appoint, and that said United States attorney and his assistants and such persons as he shall designate shall be allowed before the court, and under its direction and in the presence of the attorneys for the claimants, if they shall attend, to make examination of said invoice or paper and to take copies thereof; but the claimants or their agents or attorneys shall have, subject to the order of the court, the custody of such invoice or paper, except pending such examination."

The 5th section of the act of June 22, 1874, under which this order was made, is in the following words, to-wit:

"In all suits and proceedings other than criminal arising under any of the revenue laws of the United States, the attorney representing the government, whenever in his belief any

Page 116 U. S. 620

business book, invoice, or paper belonging to, or under the control of, the defendant or claimant will tend to prove any allegation made by the United States, may make a written motion particularly describing such book, invoice, or paper and setting forth the allegation which he expects to prove, and thereupon the court in which suit or proceeding is pending may, at its discretion, issue a notice to the defendant or claimant to produce such book, invoice, or paper in court, at a day and hour to be specified in said notice, which, together with a copy of said motion, shall be served formally on the defendant or claimant by the United States marshal by delivering to him a certified copy thereof, or otherwise serving the same as original notices of suit in the same court are served, and if the defendant or claimant shall fail or refuse to produce such book, invoice, or paper in obedience to such notice, the allegations stated in the said motion shall be taken as confessed unless his failure or refusal to produce the same shall be explained to the satisfaction of the court. And if produced, the said attorney shall be permitted, under the direction of the court, to make examination (at which examination the defendant, or claimant, or his agent, may be present) of such entries in said book, invoice, or paper as relate to or tend to prove the allegation aforesaid, and may offer the same in evidence on behalf of the United States. But the owner of said books and papers, his agent or attorney, shall have, subject to the order of the court, the custody of them, except pending their examination in court as aforesaid."

18 Stat. 187.

This section was passed in lieu of the 2d section of the act of March 2, 1867, entitled

"An act to regulate the Disposition of the Proceeds of Fines, Penalties, and forfeitures incurred under the Laws relating to the Customs and for other purposes,"

14 Stat. 547, which section of said last-mentioned statute authorized the district judge, on complaint and affidavit that any fraud on the revenue had been committed by any person interested or engaged in the importation of merchandise, to issue his warrant to the marshal to enter any premises where any invoices, books, or papers were deposited relating to such merchandise, and take possession of such books and papers and

Page 116 U. S. 621

produce them before said judge, to be subject to his order, and allowed to be examined by the collector, and to be retained as long as the judge should deem necessary. This law, being in force at the time of the revision, was incorporated into § 3091, 3092, 3093 of the Revised Statutes.

The section last recited was passed in lieu of the the section of the act of March 3, 1863, entitled

"An act to prevent and punish Frauds upon the Revenue, to provide for the more certain and speedy Collection of Claims in Favor of the United States, and for other Purposes."

12 Stat. 737. The 7th section of this act was in substance the same as the 2d section of the act of 1867, except that the warrant was to be directed to the collector instead of the marshal. It was the first legislation of the kind that ever appeared on the statute books of the United States, and, as seen from its date, was adopted at a period of great national excitement, when the powers of the government were subjected to a severe strain to protect the national existence.

The clauses of the Constitution to which it is contended that these laws are repugnant are the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. The Fourth declares,

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

The Fifth Article, amongst other things, declares that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."

But, in regard to the Fourth Amendment, it is contended that, whatever might have been alleged against the constitutionality of the acts of 1863 and 1867, that of 1874, under which the order in the present case as made, is free from constitutional objection because it does not authorize the search and seizure of books and papers, but only requires the defendant or claimant to produce them. That is so, but it declares that, if he does not produce them, the allegations which it is affirmed they will prove shall be taken as confessed. This is

Page 116 U. S. 622

tantamount to compelling their production, for the prosecuting attorney will always be sure to state the evidence expected to be derived from them as strongly as the case will admit of. It is true that certain aggravating incidents of actual search and seizure, such as forcible entry into a man's house and searching amongst his papers, are wanting, and, to this extent, the proceeding under the act of 1874 is a mitigation of that which was authorized by the former acts; but it accomplishes the substantial object of those acts in forcing from a party evidence against himself. It is our opinion, therefore, that a compulsory production of a man's private papers to establish a criminal charge against him, or to forfeit his property, is within the scope of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in all cases in which a search and seizure would be, because it is a material ingredient, and effects the sole object and purpose of search and seizure.

The principal question, however, remains to be considered. Is a search and seizure, or, what is equivalent thereto, a compulsory production of a man's private papers, to be used in evidence against him in a proceeding to forfeit his property for alleged fraud against the revenue laws -- is such a proceeding for such a purpose an "unreasonable search and seizure" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution? or is it a legitimate proceeding? It is contended by the counsel for the government, that it is a legitimate proceeding, sanctioned by long usage and the authority of judicial decision. No doubt long usage, acquiesced in by the courts, goes a long way to prove that there is some plausible ground or reason for it in the law, or in the historical facts which have imposed a particular construction of the law favorable to such usage. It is a maxim that consuetudo est optimus interpres legum, and another maxim that contemporanea expositio est optima et fortissima in lege. But we do not find any long usage or an contemporary construction of the Constitution which would justify any of the acts of Congress now under consideration As before stated, the act of 1863 was the first act in this country, and, we might say, either in this country or in England, so far as we have been able to ascertain, which authorized the

Page 116 U. S. 623

search and seizure of a man's private papers, or the compulsory production of them, for the purpose of using then in evidence against him in a criminal case or in a proceeding to enforce the forfeiture of his property. Even the act under which the obnoxious writs of assistance were issued [Footnote 1] did not go as far as this, but only authorized the examination of ships and vessels, and persons found therein, for the purpose of finding goods prohibited to be imported or exported, or on which the duties were not paid, and to enter into and search any suspected vaults, cellars, or warehouses for such goods. The search for and seizure of stolen or forfeited goods, or goods liable to duties and concealed to avoid the payment thereof, are totally different things from a search for and seizure of a man's private books and papers for the purpose of obtaining information therein contained, or of using them as evidence against him. The two things differ toto coelo. In the one case, the government is entitled to the possession of the property; in the other it is not. The seizure of stolen goods is authorized by the common law, and the seizure of goods forfeited for a breach of the revenue laws, or concealed to avoid the duties payable on them, has been authorized by English statutes for at least two centuries past, [Footnote 2] and the like seizures have been authorized by our own revenue acts from the commencement of the government. The first statute passed by Congress to regulate the collection of duties, the act of July 31, 1789, 1 Stat. 29, 43, contains provisions to this effect. As this act was passed by the same Congress which proposed for adoption the original amendments to the Constitution, it is clear that the members of that body did not regard searches and seizures of this kind as "unreasonable," and they are not embraced within the prohibition of the amendment. So also, the supervision authorized to be exercised by officers of the revenue over the manufacture or custody of excisable articles, and the entries thereof in books required by law

Page 116 U. S. 624

to be kept for their inspection, are necessarily excepted out of the category of unreasonable searches and seizures. So also, the laws which provide for the search and seizure of articles and things which it is unlawful for a person to have in his possession for the purpose of issue or disposition, such as counterfeit coin, lottery tickets, implements of gambling, &c., are not within this category. Commonwealth v. Dana, 2 Met. (Mass.) 329. Many other things of this character might be enumerated. The entry upon premises, made by a sheriff or other officer of the law, for the purpose of seizing goods and chattels by virtue of a judicial writ, such as an attachment, a sequestration, or an execution, is not within the prohibition of the Fourth or Fifth Amendment, or any other clause of the Constitution; nor is the examination of a defendant under oath after an ineffectual execution, for the purpose of discovering secreted property or credits, to be applied to the payment of a judgment against him, obnoxious to those amendments.

But, when examined with care, it is manifest that there is a total unlikeness of these official acts and proceedings to that which is now under consideration. In the case of stolen goods, the owner from whom they were stolen is entitled to their possession, and in the case of excisable or dutiable articles, the government has an interest in them for the payment of the duties thereon, and, until such duties are paid, has a right to keep them under observation, or to pursue and drag them from concealment, and, in the case of goods seized on attachment or execution, the creditor is entitled to their seizure in satisfaction of his debt, and the examination of a defendant under oath to obtain a discovery of concealed property or credits is a proceeding merely civil to effect the ends of justice, and is no more than what the court of chancery would direct on a bill for discovery. Whereas, by the proceeding now under consideration, the court attempts to extort from the party his private books and papers to make him liable for a penalty or to forfeit his property.

In order to ascertain the nature of the proceedings intended by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution under the terms "unreasonable searches and seizures," it is only necessary to

Page 116 U. S. 625

recall the contemporary or then recent history of the controversies on the subject, both in this country and in England. The practice had obtained in the colonies of issuing writs of assistance to the revenue officers, empowering them, in their discretion, to search suspected places for smuggled goods, which James Otis pronounced

"the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty, and the fundamental principles of law, that ever was found in an English law book;"

since they placed "the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer." [Footnote 3] This was in February, 1761, in Boston, and the famous debate in which it occurred was perhaps the most prominent event which inaugurated the resistance of the colonies to the oppressions of the mother country. "Then and there," said John Adams,

"then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there, the child Independence was born."

These things, and the events which took place in England immediately following the argument about writs of assistance in Boston, were fresh in the memories of those who achieved our independence and established our form of government. In the period from 1762, when the North Briton was started by John Wilkes, to April, 1766, when the House of Commons passed resolutions condemnatory of general warrants, whether for the seizure of persons or papers, occurred the bitter controversy between the English government and Wilkes, in which the latter appeared as the champion of popular rights, and was, indeed, the pioneer in the contest which resulted in the abolition of some grievous abuses which had gradually crept into the administration of public affairs. Prominent and principal among these was the practice of issuing general

Page 116 U. S. 626

warrants by the Secretary of State for searching private houses for the discovery and seizure of books and papers that might be used to convict their owner of the charge of libel. Certain numbers of the North Briton, particularly No. 45, had been very bold in denunciation of the government, and were esteemed heinously libelous. By authority of the secretary's warrant, Wilkes' house was searched, and his papers were indiscriminately seized. For this outrage, he sued the perpetrators and obtained a verdict of

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