Ex Parte Watkins
Annotate this Case
32 U.S. 568 (1833)
U.S. Supreme Court
Ex Parte Watkins, 32 U.S. 7 Pet. 568 568 (1833)
Ex Parte Watkins
32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 568
Habeas corpus. W., at May term, 1829, of the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia was tried upon three indictments for offenses against the United States and was sentenced on each to imprisonment for three months and to pay a fine on one indictment of two thousand dollars, on another of seven hundred and fifty; dollars, and on another of three hundred dollars, with the costs of prosecution. No award was made on either judgment that W. should stand committed until the sentence be performed. W. was. under these sentences, committed to jail by the then marshal of the District, and upon the expiration of his office and the appointment of his successor, after the term of his imprisonment was exhausted, he was delivered over in jail, with other prisoners, to his successor, and has ever since been detained in custody. The time of imprisonment expired on 14 May, 1830. On 3 September, 1829, the district attorney sued forth three several writs of fieri facias to levy the fines, which were returned nulla bona. On 16 February, 1830, three writs of capias ad satisfaciendum were issued against W. for the fines, returnable to the next term of the Court in May, which writs commanded the marshal to take W and him safety keep and have his body before the circuit court on the first Monday of the term, to satisfy the United States for the fines and costs, &c. No return was made to the court by the marshal according to the exigency of the writ, and nothing further was done until 10 January, 1833, when the late marshal of the District made a return to each writ of capias ad satisfaciendum "cepi and delivered over to my successor in office." W. petitioned the court for a habeas corpus, asserting that he was illegally confined. The court awarded the writ, and on the return thereof discharged the prisoner from confinement.
This Court has authority to award a habeas corpus upon this state of facts. As it is the exercise of the appellate power of the court to award the writ, it is within its jurisdiction to do so. It is revising the effect of the process of the circuit court under which the prisoner is detained, and is not the exercise of original jurisdiction.
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which declares that excessive fines shall not be imposed, is addressed to courts of the United States exercising criminal jurisdiction, and is doubtless mandatory to and a limitation upon its discretion. But this Court has no appellate jurisdiction to revise the sentences of inferior courts in criminal cases, and cannot, even if the excess of the fine was apparent on the record, reverse the sentence.
The prisoner could not be detained in jail longer than the return day of the process, and he should then have been brought into the circuit court and committed by order of the court to the custody of the marshal for
payment of the fine. This not having been done, by the law of Maryland, which is the law of the part of the District of Columbia in which is situated the City of Washington, he is entitled to be discharged from confinement under the process.
Tobias Watkins, by Mr. Brent, his counsel, presented a petition to the Court setting forth that at the term of the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia holden for the County of Washington on the first Monday of May, 1829, certain presentments and indictments were found against him, upon three of which indictments trials were had and verdicts passed against him, and judgments on such verdicts respectively were pronounced by the court purporting to condemn him to certain terms of imprisonment and also to the payment of certain pecuniary fines and costs for the supposed offenses therein. For the nature of those proceedings, the petitioner referred to the exemplifications filed in this Court, with an application made to the court at January term, 1830. 28 U. S. 3 Pet. 193.
The petition stated that immediately after the rendition of such judgments and in pretended execution of the same, on 14 August, 1829, he, the petitioner, was committed to the common jail of the County of Washington, and there remained until the terms of imprisonment imposed by the several judgments had expired, the same having expired on 14 May, 1830, and that ever since that time he had been and still was detained in the criminal apartment of the prison under the color and pretense of authority not only of the judgments but of three certain writs issued on 16 February, 1830, by the clerk of the Circuit Court of Washington County, by special orders of the District Attorney of the United States for the District of Columbia, as he had been informed and believed, at the request and by direction of the President of the United States. That he was illegally detained in prison by the authority of the said writs, as he was well advised, and averred that they give no authority for his commitment and detention, having been not only illegally and oppressively issued, but he had been by them deprived of the privilege secured to him by the laws of the land, to be released from imprisonment on the ground of his insolvency, and being unable to pay his debts.
The writs gave no authority for his present detention and imprisonment for a longer period than the first Monday in May, 1830, since which time, even admitting the writs to have been legally issued, his imprisonment had been illegal and oppressive and without any authority whatever. That the fines were excessive, and as such contrary to the laws of the land, as he was, at the time they were imposed and ever since had been unable to pay the same, and it was not the law of the land that a citizen should be confined for life for fines which he could not pay. He had been refused the benefit of the insolvent laws, and if relief could not be obtained from this Court from his inability to pay the fines, he would be confined for life.
The petition prayed
"the benefit of the writ of habeas corpus, to be directed to the Marshal of the District of Columbia, in whose custody, as keeper of said jail, your petitioner is, commanding him to bring before Your Honors the body of your petitioner, together with the cause of his commitment, and especially commanding him to return with said writ the record of the proceedings upon said indictments, with the judgments thereupon, and the several writs under the supposed authority of which your petitioner is now detained, as aforesaid, in a criminal apartment of said jail, by the supposed authority, and in virtue of said several writs."
The court granted a rule to show cause returnable on a subsequent day of the term.
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