Article 6, Clause 2

Document 33

United States v. Hart

26 Fed. Cas. 193, no. 15,316 C.C.D.Pa. 1817

Washington, Circuit Justice. It is unnecessary at this time to enter into an examination of the objections made to the constitutionality of this law, and to the jurisdiction of this court, as the defendant may have the full benefit of them on a motion in arrest of judgment, if the verdict should be against him, and there should be any thing in the objections. I shall merely observe for the present, that by passing them over, it is not to be understood that the court means, in any respect, to countenance them. If the ordinance of the city is in collision with the act of congress, there can be no question but that the former must give way. The constitution of the United States, and the laws made in pursuance thereof, are declared by the constitution to be the supreme law of the land; and the judges both of the federal and state courts, are bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state, to the contrary notwithstanding. But, there is in truth no collision between this ordinance and the act of congress on which this indictment is founded. If the mail carrier should violate the ordinance, the act of congress does not shelter him from the penalty imposed by the ordinance. But the ordinance does not authorise any officer to stop the mail, and consequently he cannot justify his having done it, under that ordinance. The defendant's counsel have then resorted to the common law, which authorises a constable, without a warrant, to prevent a breach of the peace; and it is contended, that for any person to drive through a populous city, at such a rate as to endanger the lives or the safety of the inhabitants, amounts to a breach of the peace.

This view of the subject presents two questions. First, was the mail carrier in the act of breaking the peace, at the time when he was stopped by the defendant; and if he was, then, secondly, would this fact excuse him under a fair interpretation of the law under consideration. As to the first question the court is of opinion that driving a carriage through a crowded or populous street, at such a rate or in such a manner as to endanger the safety of the inhabitants, is an indictable offence at common law, and amounts to a breach of the peace. But, whether in the two cases stated in this indictment, the mail carrier so conducted himself as to come within this principle, is a question proper for the jury to decide. If they decide this fact affirmatively, then upon the principles of the common law, the constable was authorised without a warrant, to prevent the peace from being broken. The second question will depend upon the fair construction of the act of congress, and we are of opinion that it ought not to be so construed as to shield the carrier against this preventive remedy, because a temporary stoppage of the mail may be the consequence. Suppose the officer had a warrant against a felon who had placed himself in the stage, or that the driver should commit murder in the street in the presence of an officer, and then place himself on the box; could it be contended, that the sanctity of the mail would extend to protect those persons against arrest, because a temporary stoppage of the mail would be the consequence? We think not. It could not be said in any of these cases, that the act amounted to a wilful stoppage of the mail.

Verdict not guilty.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 6, Clause 2, Document 33
The University of Chicago Press

Easy to print version.