Lawton v. Steele,
152 U.S. 133 (1894)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Lawton v. Steele, 152 U.S. 133 (1894)

Lawton v. Steele

No. 203

Submitted January 17, 1894

Decided March 6, 1894

152 U.S. 133


It is within the power of a State to preserve from extinction fisheries in waters within its jurisdiction by prohibiting exhaustive methods of fishing, or the use of such destructive instruments as are likely to result in the extermination of the young as well as the mature fish.

The provision in the statutes of New York. c. 591 of the Laws of 1880, as amended by c. 317 of the Laws of 1883, that nets set or maintained upon waters of the state or on the shores of or islands in such waters in violation of the statutes of the state enacted for the protection of fish, may be summarily destroyed by any person, and that it shall be the duty of certain officers to abate, remove, and forthwith destroy them, and that no action for damages shall lie or be maintained against any person for or on account of such seizure or destruction, is a lawful exercise of the police power of the state, and does not deprive the citizen of his property without due process of law in violation of the provision of the Constitution of the United States.

This was an action at law instituted in the Supreme Court for the County of Jefferson by the plaintiffs in error against the defendant in error, together with Edward L. Sargent and Richard U. Sherman, for the conversion of fifteen hoop and fyke nets of the alleged value of $525. Defendants Steele and Sargent interposed a general denial. Defendant Sherman pleaded that he, with three others, constituted the Commissioners of Fisheries of the State of New York, with power to give directions to game and fish protectors with regard to the enforcement of the game law; that defendant Steele was

Page 152 U. S. 134

a game and fish protector duly appointed by the governor of the State of New York, and that the nets sued for were taken possession of by said Steele, as such game and fish protector, upon the ground that they were maintained upon the waters of the state in violation of existing statutes for the protection of fish and game, and thereby became a public nuisance.

The facts were undisputed. The nets were the property of the plaintiffs, and were taken away by the defendant Steele and destroyed. At the time of the taking, most of the nets were in the waters of the Black River Bay, being used for fishing purposes, and the residue were upon the shore of that bay, having recently been used for the same purpose. The plaintiffs were fishermen, and the defendant Steele was a state game and fish protector. The taking and destruction of the nets were claimed to have been justifiable under the statutes of the state relating to the protection of game and fish. Plaintiffs claimed there was no justification under the statutes, and if they constituted such justification upon their face, they were unconstitutional. Defendant Sherman was a state fish commissioner. Defendant Sargent was president of the Jefferson County Fish & Game Association. Plaintiffs claimed these defendants to be liable upon the ground that they instigated, incited, or directed the taking and destruction of the nets.

Upon trial before a jury, a verdict was rendered, subject to the opinion of the court, in favor of the plaintiffs against defendant Steele for the sum of $216, and in favor of defendants Sargent and Sherman. A motion for a new trial was denied, and judgment entered upon the verdict for $216 damages and $166.09 costs. On appeal to the general term, this judgment was reversed and a new trial ordered, and a further appeal allowed to the Court of Appeals. On appeal to the Court of Appeals, the order of the general term granting a new trial was affirmed, and judgment absolute ordered for the defendant. 119 N.Y. 226. Plaintiffs thereupon sued out a writ of error from this Court.

Page 152 U. S. 135

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