United States v. Coombs
37 U.S. 72 (1838)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Coombs, 37 U.S. 12 Pet. 72 72 (1838)

United States v. Coombs

37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 72

Syllabus

Indictment in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York, for feloniously stealing a quantity of merchandise belonging to the ship Bristol, the ship being in distress and cast away on a shoal of the sea on the coast of the State of New York. The indictment was founded on the 9th section of the act, entitled "An act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States and for other purposes, approved 3 March, 1825." The goods were taken above high water mark, upon the beach, in the County of Queens in the State of New York. Held that the offense committed was within the jurisdiction of the circuit court.

If a section of an act of Congress admits of two interpretations, one of which brings it within and the other presses it beyond the constitutional authority of Congress, it is the duty of the Supreme Court to adopt the former construction, because a presumption never ought to be indulged that Congress meant to exercise or usurp any unconstitutional authority unless that conclusion is forced on the court, by language altogether unambiguous.

In cases purely dependent upon the locality of the act done, the admiralty jurisdiction is limited to the sea and to the tidewater as far as the tide flows. Mixed cases may arise and often do arise where the act and services done are of a mixed nature, as where salvage services are performed partly on tidewaters and partly on shore for the preservation of the property, in which the admiralty jurisdiction has been constantly exercised to the extent of decreeing salvage.

Under the clause of the Constitution giving the power to Congress "to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states," Congress possesses the power to punish offenses of the sort enumerated in the ninth section of the act of 1825. The power to regulate commerce includes the power to regulate navigation as connected with the commerce with foreign nations and

among the states. It does not stop at the mere boundary line of a state, nor is it confined to acts done on the waters or in the necessary course of the navigation thereof. It extends to such acts done on land which interfere with, obstruct, or prevent the due exercise of the power to regulate commerce and navigation with foreign nations and among the states. Any offense which thus interferes with, obstructs, or prevents such commerce and navigation, though done on land, may be punished by Congress under its general authority to make all laws necessary and proper to execute their delegated constitutional powers.

Upon the general principles of interpreting statutes, where the words are general, the court is not at liberty to insert limitations not called for by the sense or the objects or the mischiefs of the enactment.

Lawrence Coombs was indicted under the 9th section of the Act

Page 37 U. S. 73

entitled, "an act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes, approved 3 March, 1825," for having, on 21 November, 1836, feloniously stolen at Rockaway Beach, in the Southern District of New York, one trunk of the value of five dollars, one package of yarn of the value of five dollars, one package of silk of the value of five dollars, one roll of ribbons of the value of five dollars, one package of muslin of the value of five dollars, and six pairs of hose of the value of five dollars, which said goods, wares and merchandise, belonged to the ship Bristol, the said ship then being in distress and cast away on a shoal of the sea on the coast of the State of New York, within the Southern District of New York. On this indictment the prisoner was arraigned, and plead not guilty, and put himself upon his country for trial.

It was admitted that the goods mentioned in the indictment, and which belonged to the said ship Bristol, were taken above high water mark, upon the beach, in the County of Queens, whereupon the question arose, whether the offense committed was within the jurisdiction of the court, and on this point the judges were opposed in opinion.

Which said point upon which the disagreement happened was stated under the direction of the judges of the court at the request of the counsel for the United States and of Lawrence Coombs, parties in the cause, and ordered to be certified unto the Supreme Court at the next session, pursuant to the act in such case made and provided.

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