Jecker v. Montgomery - 54 U.S. 498 (1851)
U.S. Supreme Court
Jecker v. Montgomery, 54 U.S. 13 How. 498 498 (1851)
Jecker v. Montgomery
54 U.S. (13 How.) 498
During the war with Mexico, the Admittance, an American vessel, was seized in a port of California by the commander of a vessel of war of the United States, upon suspicion of trading with the enemy. She was condemned as a lawful prize by the chaplain belonging to one of the vessels of war upon that station, who had been authorized by the President of the United States to exercise admiralty jurisdiction in cases of capture.
The owners of the cargo filed a libel against the captain of the vessel of war, in the Admiralty court for the District of Columbia. Being carried to the circuit court, it was decided
1. That the condemnation in California was invalid as a defense for the captors.
2. That the answer of the captors, having averred sufficient probable cause for the seizure of the cargo, and the libellants having demurred to this answer, upon the ground that the district court had no right to adjudicate, because the property had not been brought within its jurisdiction, the demurrer was overruled, and judgment was entered against the libellants.
The judgment of the circuit court upon the first point was correct, and upon the second point erroneous.
The Prize court established in California was not authorized by the laws of the United States or the laws of nations.
The grounds alleged for the seizure of the vessel and cargo in the answer, viz., that the vessel sailed from New Orleans with the design of trading with the enemy and did in fact hold illegal intercourse with them, are sufficient to subject both to condemnation if they are supported by testimony.
And if they were liable to capture and condemnation, the reasons assigned in the answer for not bringing them into a port of the United States and libeling them for condemnation, viz., that it was impossible do so consistently with the public interests, are sufficient, if supported by proof, to justify the captors in selling vessel and cargo in California and to exempt them from damages on that account.
The Admiralty court in the district had jurisdiction of the case, and it was the duty of the court to order the captors to institute proceedings in that court to condemn the property as prize by a day to be named in the order, and in default thereof to be proceeded against upon the libel for an unlawful seizure.
The admiralty court in the District of Columbia had jurisdiction of such a libel for condemnation although the property was not brought within its jurisdiction, and if they found it liable to condemnation, might proceed to condemn it although it was not brought within the custody or control of the court.
The necessity of proceeding to condemn as prize does not arise from any difference between the Instance court and the Prize court, as known in England. The same court here possesses the instance and prize jurisdiction. But because the property of the neutral is not divested by the capture, but by the condemnation in a prize court, and it is not divested until condemnation, although, when condemned, the condemnation relates back to the capture.
As this libel is for the restitution of the property or the proceeds, probable cause of seizure is no defense. It is a good defense against a claim for damages when the property has been restored or lost after seizure without the fault of the captor. But while the property or proceeds is withheld by the captor and claimed as prize, probable cause of seizure is no defense.
The circuit court therefore erred in deciding that probable cause of seizure was a good defense.
The facts are fully stated in the opinion of the Court.