Webber v. Virginia, 103 U.S. 344 (1880)
U.S. Supreme CourtWebber v. Virginia, 103 U.S. 344 (1880)
Webber v. Virginia
103 U.S. 344
1. Letters patent granted by the United States do not exclude from the operation of the tax or license law of a state the tangible property in which the invention or discovery is embodied.
2. A statute of Virginia requires that the agent for the sale of articles manufactured in other states must first obtain a license, for which he is required to pay a specific tax for each county in which he sells or offers to sell them, while the agent for the sale of articles manufactured in that state, if acting for the manufacturer, is not required to obtain a license or pay any license tax. Held that the statute is in conflict with the commerce clause of the Constitution of the United States, and void.
3. Commerce among the states is not free whenever a commodity is, by reason of its foreign growth or manufacture, subjected by state legislation to discriminating regulations or burdens.
This case comes before this Court on a writ of error to the Supreme Court of Appeals of the State of Virginia, and arose in this way:
In May, 1880, the plaintiff in error, J. T. Webber, was indicted in the County Court of Henrico County in that state for unlawfully selling and offering for sale in that
county, to its citizens, certain machines known as Singer sewing machines, which were manufactured out of the state, without having first obtained a license for that purpose from the authorities of the county, or having paid the tax imposed by law for that privilege.
The indictment was founded upon the forty-fifth and forty-sixth sections of the revenue law of the state, which are as follows:
"45. Any person who shall sell, or offer for sale, the manufactured articles or machines of other states or territories, unless he be the owner thereof and taxed as a merchant, or take orders therefor, on commission or otherwise, shall be deemed to be an agent for the sale of manufactured articles of other states and territories, and shall not act as such without taking out a license therefor. No such person shall, under his license as such, sell or offer to sell such articles through the agency of another, but a separate license shall be required from any agent or employee who may sell or offer to sell such articles for another. For any violation of this section, the person offending shall pay a fine of not less than fifty dollars nor more than one hundred dollars for each offense."
"46. The specific license tax upon an agent for the sale of any manufactured article or machine of other states or territories shall be twenty-five dollars, and this tax shall give to any party licensed under this section the right to sell the same within the county or corporation in which he shall take out his license, and if he shall sell or offer to sell the same in any other of the counties or corporations of this state, he shall pay an additional tax of ten dollars in each of the counties or corporations where he may sell or offer their agents, selling articles manufactured in this state, shall pay the specific license tax imposed by this section."
Acts of Assembly 1875 and 1876, p. 184, c. 162, secs. 45, 46.
To the indictment the accused pleaded "not guilty;" and on the trial it was proved that he had sold and offered to sell sewing machines in Henrico County, as charged, but that at the time he was acting as agent or employee of the Singer Manufacturing Company, a corporation created under the laws of New Jersey; that this company had a place of business in Richmond, Va., where it was licensed as a resident merchant,
for the year beginning May 1, 1880, and had paid the required license tax, and where it kept a stock of machines for sale; that the machines sold by the accused were the property of the company, and were manufactured by it out of the state and in accordance with specifications of a patent of the United States, granted in 1879 to one W. C. Hicks, and by him transferred to the company. It also appeared that the accused had not taken out a license to sell the machines in Henrico County, and was not himself taxed as a merchant, and had not taken orders for the machines on commission or otherwise.
On the trial. his counsel requested the court to instruct the jury that if they believed the Singer Manufacturing Company had paid for a general merchant's license for the year beginning May 1, 1880, and received such license, or that the machines sold were constructed according to the specifications of the patent held by the company, and that the accused was acting in the sales made only as its employee, he was entitled to a verdict of acquittal. The court refused to give these instructions, and, at the request of the attorney for the Commonwealth, instructed the jury in substance that if they believed the accused had, at different times within the year previous to the indictment, sold or offered to sell in Henrico County to its citizens Singer sewing machines manufactured beyond the state, and at the time he was neither the manufacturer himself nor the owner of them, and was not taxed as a merchant in the county, and had not taken orders therefor on commission or otherwise, and had not obtained a license to sell the same in the county, and had not paid to the proper officer the tax imposed by law for selling the same in that county, they should find him guilty.
The jury found the accused guilty, and he was sentenced to pay a fine of fifty dollars and costs. On appeal to the circuit court of the county, this judgment was affirmed, and on further appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeals of the state, the judgment of the circuit court was affirmed. To review the latter judgment, the case is brought here on writ of error.