United States v. Kirby
74 U.S. 482 (1868)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Kirby, 74 U.S. 7 Wall. 482 482 (1868)

United States v. Kirby

74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 482

ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT

FOR THE DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY

Syllabus

1. The temporary detention of the mail caused by the arrest of its carrier upon a bench warrant issued by a state court of competent jurisdiction upon an indictment found therein for murder is not an obstruction or retarding of the passage of the mail or of its carrier within the meaning of the ninth section of the Act of Congress of March 3, 1825, which provides

"That if any person shall knowingly and willfully obstruct or retard the passage of the mail or of any driver or carrier or of any horse or carriage carrying the same, he shall, upon conviction, for every such offense pay a fine not exceeding one hundred dollars."

2. That section applies only to those who know that the acts performed by them obstructing or retarding the passage of the mail or of its carrier will have that effect and perform them with the intention that such shall be their operation.

3. When the acts which create the obstruction are in themselves unlawful, the intention to obstruct will be imputed to their author, although to attain other ends may have been his primary object. The statute has

Page 74 U. S. 483

no reference to acts lawful in themselves from the execution of which a temporary delay to the mails unavoidably follows.

4. Though all persons in the public service are exempt as a matter of public policy from arrest upon civil process while thus engaged, the rule is different when the process is issued upon a charge of felony. Every officer of the United States is responsible to the legal tribunals of the country and to the ordinary processes for his arrest and detention when accused of felony in the forms prescribed by the Constitution and laws.

5. All laws should receive a sensible construction. General terms should be so limited in their application as not to lead to injustice, oppression, or an absurd consequence, and it will always be presumed that the legislature intended exceptions to its language which would avoid results of this character.

The defendants were indicted for knowingly and willfully obstructing and retarding the passage of the mail and of a mail carrier, in the District Court for the District of Kentucky. The case was certified to the circuit court for that district.

The indictment was founded upon the ninth section of the Act of Congress of March 3, 1825, "to reduce into one the several acts establishing and regulating the post office department," which provides

"That if any person shall knowingly and willfully obstruct or retard the passage of the mail or of any driver or carrier or of any horse or carriage carrying the same, he shall, upon conviction, for every such offense, pay a fine not exceeding one hundred dollars, and if any ferryman shall, by willful negligence or refusal to transport the mail across the ferry, delay the same, he shall forfeit and pay, for every ten minutes that the same shall be so delayed, a sum not exceeding ten dollars. [Footnote 1]"

The indictment contained four counts, and charged the defendants with knowingly and willfully obstructing the passage of the mail of the United States in the District of Kentucky on the first of February, 1867, contrary to the act of Congress, and with knowingly and willfully obstructing and retarding at the same time in that district the passage of one Farris, a carrier of the mail, while engaged in the performance of this duty, and with knowingly and willfully retarding

Page 74 U. S. 484

at the same time in that district the passage of the steamboat General Buell, which was then carrying the mail of the United States from the City of Louisville in Kentucky to the City of Cincinnati in Ohio.

To this indictment the defendants, among other things, pleaded specially to the effect that at the September Term 1866 of the Circuit Court of Gallatin County, in the State of Kentucky, which was a court of competent jurisdiction, two indictments were found by the grand jury of the county against the said Farris for murder; that by order of the court bench warrants were issued upon these indictments, and placed in the hands of Kirby, one of the defendants, who was then sheriff of the county, commanding him to arrest the said Farris and bring him before the court to answer the indictments; that in obedience to these warrants he arrested Farris, and was accompanied by the other defendants as a posse, who were lawfully summoned to assist him in effecting the arrest; that they entered the steamboat Buell to make the arrest, and only used such force as was necessary to accomplish this end; and that they acted without any intent or purpose to obstruct or retard the mail, or the passage of the steamer. To this plea the district attorney of the United States demurred, and upon the argument of the demurrer two questions arose:

First. Whether the arrest of the mail carrier upon the bench warrants from the Circuit Court of Kentucky was, under the circumstances, an obstruction of the mail within the meaning of the act of Congress.

Second. Whether the arrest was obstructing or retarding the passage of a carrier of the mail within the meaning of that act.

Upon these questions the judges were opposed in opinion, and the questions were sent to this Court upon a certificate of division.

Page 74 U. S. 485

MR. JUSTICE FIELD, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the Court as follows:

There can be but one answer, in our judgment, to the questions certified to us. The statute of Congress by its terms applies only to persons who "knowing and willfully" obstruct or retard the passage of the mail, or of its carrier -- that is, to those who know that the acts performed will have

Page 74 U. S. 486

that effect, and perform them with the intention that such shall be their operation. When the acts which create the obstruction are in themselves unlawful, the intention to obstruct will be imputed to their author, although the attainment of other ends may have been his primary object. The statute has no reference to acts lawful in themselves, from the execution of which a temporary delay to the mails unavoidably follows. All persons in the public service are exempt, as a matter of public policy, from arrest upon civil process while thus engaged. Process of that kind can therefore furnish no justification for the arrest of a carrier of the mail. This is all that is decided by the case of the United States v. Harvey, [Footnote 2] to which we are referred by the counsel of the government. The rule is different when the process is issued upon a charge of felony. No officer or employee of the United States is placed by his position, or the services he is called to perform, above responsibility to the legal tribunals of the country, and to the ordinary processes for his arrest and detention, when accused of felony, in the forms prescribed by the Constitution and laws. The public inconvenience which may occasionally follow from the temporary delay in the transmission of the mail caused by the arrest of its carriers upon such charges, is far less than that which would arise from extending to them the immunity for which the counsel of the government contends. Indeed, it may be doubted whether it is competent for Congress to exempt the employees of the United States from arrest on criminal process from the state courts, when the crimes charged against them are not merely mala prohibita, but are mala in se. But whether legislation of that character be constitutional or not, no intention to extend such exemption should be attributed to Congress unless clearly manifested by its language. All laws should receive a sensible construction. General terms should be so limited in their application as not to lead to injustice, oppression, or an absurd consequence. It will always, therefore, be presumed

Page 74 U. S. 487

that the legislature intended exceptions to its language, which would avoid results of this character. The reason of the law in such cases should prevail over its letter.

The common sense of man approves the judgment mentioned by Puffendorf that the Bolognian law which enacted, "that whoever drew blood in the streets should be punished with the utmost severity" did not extend to the surgeon who opened the vein of a person that fell down in the street in a fit. The same common sense accepts the ruling, cited by Plowden that the statute of 1st Edward II, which enacts that a prisoner who breaks prison shall be guilty of felony does not extend to a prisoner who breaks out when the prison is on fire -- "for he is not to be hanged because he would not stay to be burnt." And we think that a like common sense will sanction the ruling we make that the act of Congress which punishes the obstruction or retarding of the passage of the mail or of its carrier does not apply to a case of temporary detention of the mail caused by the arrest of the carrier upon an indictment for murder. [Footnote 3]

The questions certified to us must be answered in the negative and it is so ordered.

MR. JUSTICE MILLER, having been absent at the hearing, took no part in this order.

[Footnote 1]

4 Stat. at Large 104.

[Footnote 2]

8 Law Reporter 77.

[Footnote 3]

See also United States v. Hart, 1 Peters C.C. 390.

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.