United States v. Palmer
16 U.S. 610 (1818)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Palmer, 16 U.S. 3 Wheat. 610 610 (1818)

United States v. Palmer

16 U.S. (3 Wheat.) 610

Syllabus

A robbery committed on the high seas, although such robbery if committed on land would not by the laws of the United States be punishable with death, is piracy, under the eighth section of the Act of 1760, ch. 36, for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and the circuit courts have jurisdiction thereof.

The crime of robbery as mentioned in the act is the crime of robbery as recognized at common law.

The crime of robbery committed by a person who is not a citizen of the United State on the high seas on board of a ship belonging exclusively to subjects of a foreign state is not piracy under the act, and is not punishable in the courts of the United States.

When a civil war rages in a foreign nation one part of which separates itself from the old established government and erects itself into a distinct government, the courts of the union must view such newly constituted government as it is viewed by the legislative and executive departments of the government of the United States.

If that government remains neutral but recognizes the existence of a civil war, the courts of the union cannot consider as criminal those acts of hostility which war authorizes and which the new government may direct against its enemy.

The same testimony which would he sufficient to prove that a vessel or person is in the service of an acknowledged state is admissible to prove that they are in the service of such newly erected government. Its seal cannot be allowed to prove itself, but may be proved by such testimony as the nature of the case admits, and the fact that a vessel or person is in the service of such government may be established otherwise should it be impracticable to prove the seal.

Page 16 U. S. 611

"At the Circuit Court of the United States for the First Circuit, begun and holden at Boston within and for the Massachusetts District on Wednesday, 15 October, 1817: "

"Before the honorable Joseph Story Associate Justice and John Davis, District Judge."

"The jurors of the United States of America within and for the district aforesaid, upon their oaths, do present that John Palmer and Thomas Wilson, both late of Boston in the district aforesaid, mariners, and Barney Colloghan, late of Newburyport in the aforesaid district, mariner, with force and arms, upon the high seas, out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, on the fourth day of July now last past, did piratically and feloniously set upon, board break, and enter a certain ship called the Industria Raffaelli, then and there being a ship of certain persons (to the jurors aforesaid unknown), and then and there, piratically and feloniously, did make an assault in and upon certain persons, being mariners, subjects of the King of Spain, whose names to the jurors aforesaid are unknown, in the same ship, in the peace of God, and of the said United States of America, then and there being, and then there piratically and feloniously did put the aforesaid persons, mariners of the same ship, in the ship aforesaid then being, in corporal fear and danger of their lives, then and there, in the ship aforesaid, upon the high seas aforesaid, and out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, as aforesaid, and piratically and feloniously did then and there steal, take, and carry away five

Page 16 U. S. 612

hundred boxes of sugar of the value of $20,000 of lawful money of the said United States; sixty pipes of rum, of the value of $6,000, two hundred demijohns of honey of the value of $1,000; one thousand hides of the value of $3,000; ten hogsheads of coffee of the value of $2,000, and four bags of silver and gold of the value of $60,000 of the like lawful money of the said United States of America, the goods and chattels of certain persons (to the jurors aforesaid, unknown), then and there, upon the high seas aforesaid, and out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, being found in the aforesaid ship, in custody and possession of the said mariners in the said ship, from the said mariners of the same ship, and from their custody and possession then and there upon the high seas aforesaid, out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, as aforesaid, against the peace and dignity of the said United States and the form of the statutes of the United States in such ease made and provided. And the jurors aforesaid, upon their oath aforesaid, do further present that the aforesaid District of Massachusetts is the district where the offenders aforesaid were first apprehended for the said offense."

"To which indictment the prisoners pleaded not guilty, and upon the trial the following questions occurred, upon which the opinions of the said judges of the circuit court were opposed."

"1st. Whether a robbery committed upon the high seas, although such robbery, if committed upon land, would not, by the laws of the United States, be punishable

Page 16 U. S. 613

with death, is piracy under the eighth section of the act of Congress, passed 30 April, A.D. 1790, and whether the circuit court of the United States hath authority to take cognizance of, try, and punish such offense?"

"2d. Whether the crime of robbery mentioned in the said eighth section of the act of Congress aforesaid is the crime of robbery as recognized and defined at common law, or is dispunishable until it is defined and expressly punished by some act of Congress other than the act of Congress above mentioned?"

"3d. Whether the crime of robbery, committed by persons who are not citizens of the United States on the high seas on board of any ship or vessel belonging exclusively to the subjects of any foreign state or sovereignty or upon the person of any subject of any foreign state or sovereignty not on board of any ship or vessel belonging to any citizen or citizens of the United Stated be a robbery or piracy within the true intent and meaning of the said eighth section of the act of Congress aforesaid, and of which the circuit court of the United States hath cognizance to hear, try, determine, and punish the same?"

"4th. Whether the crime of robbery committed on the high seas by citizens of the united states on board of any ship or vessel not belonging to the United States or to any citizens of the United States in whole or in part, but owned by and exclusively belonging to, the subjects of a foreign state or sovereignty, or committed on the high seas on the person of any subject of any foreign state or sovereignty who is not at the time on board of any

Page 16 U. S. 614

ship or vessel belonging in whole or part to the United States or to any citizen thereof be a robbery or piracy within the said eighth section of the acts of Congress aforesaid and of which the circuit court of the United States hath cognizance to hear, try, and determine, and punish the same?"

"5th. Whether any revolted colony, district, or people which have thrown off their allegiance to their mother country but have never been acknowledged by the United States as a sovereign or independent nation or power has authority to issue commissions to make captures on the high seas of the persons, property and vessels of the subjects of the mother country who retain their allegiance, and whether the captures made under such commissions are, as to the United States, to be deemed lawful, and whether the forcible seizure, with violence and by putting in fear of the persons on board of the vessels, the property of the subjects of such mother country who retain their allegiance on the high seas, in virtue of such commissions is not to be deemed a robbery or piracy within the said eighth section of the act of Congress aforesaid?"

"6th. Whether an act which would be deemed a robbery on the high seas if done without a lawful commission is protected from being considered as a robbery on the high seas when the same act is done under a commission or the color of a commission from any foreign colony, district, or people which have revolted from their native allegiance and have declared themselves independent and sovereign and

Page 16 U. S. 615

have assumed to exercise the powers and authorities of an independent and sovereign government, but have never been acknowledged or recognized as an independent or sovereign government or nation by the United States or by any other foreign state, prince, or sovereignty?"

"7th. Whether the existence of a commission to make captures, where it is set up as a defense to an indictment for piracy, must be proved by the production of the original commission or of a certified copy thereof from the proper department of the foreign state or sovereignty by whom it is granted, or if not, whether the impossibility of producing either the original or such certified copy must not be proved before any inferior and secondary evidence of the existence of such commission is to be allowed on the trial of such indictment before any court of the United States?"

"8th. Whether the seal, purporting to be the seal of a foreign state or sovereignty and annexed to any such commission or a certified copy thereof, is to be admitted in a court of the United States as proving itself, without any other proof of its genuineness, so as to establish the legal existence of such commission from such foreign state or sovereignty?"

"9th. Whether a seal annexed to any such commission, purporting to be the public seal used by the persons exercising the powers of government in any foreign colony, district, or people which have revolted from their native allegiance and have declared themselves independent and sovereign, and actually exercise the powers of an independent government

Page 16 U. S. 616

or nation, but have never been acknowledged as such independent government or nation by the United States is admissible in a court of the United States as proof of the legal existence of such commission, with or without further proof of the genuineness of such seal?"

"10th. Whether any colony, district, or people who have revolted from their native allegiance and have assumed upon themselves the exercise of independent and sovereign power can be deemed, in any court of the United States, an independent or sovereign nation or government until they have been acknowledged as such by the government of the United States, and whether such acknowledgement can be proved in a court of the United States otherwise than by some act or statute or resolution of the Congress of the United States or by some public proclamation or other public act of the executive authority of the United States directly containing or announcing such acknowledgement, or by publicly receiving and acknowledging an ambassador or other public minister from such colony, district, or people, and whether such acknowledgement can be proved by mere inference from the private acts or private instructions of the executive of the United States when no public acknowledgement has ever been made, and whether the courts of the United States are bound judicially to take notice of the existing relations of the United States as to foreign states and sovereignties, their colonies, and dependencies?"

"11th. Whether in case of a civil war between a mother country and its colony, the subjects of the different parties are to be deemed, in respect to neutral

Page 16 U. S. 617

nations as enemies to each other, entitled to the rights of war, and that captures made of each other's ships and other property on the high seas are to be considered, in respect to neutral nations as rightful, so that courts of law of neutral nations are not authorized to deem such acts as piracy?"

"And the said judges, being so opposed in opinion upon the questions aforesaid, the same were then and there, at the request of the District Attorney for the United States, stated, under the direction of the judges and ordered by the court to be certified under the seal of the court to the Supreme Court at its next session to be held thereafter, to be finally decided by said Supreme Court, and the court being further of opinion, that further proceedings could not be had in said cause without prejudice to the merits of the same cause, did order that the injury empanelled as aforesaid to try said cause, be discharged from giving any verdict therein. "

Page 16 U. S. 626

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