Open main menu

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

24 U.S. 392

United States  v.  Amedy

THE prisoner, John B. Amedy, was indicted in the Circuit Court of Virginia, under the act of Congress of the 26th of March, 1804, c. 393. [xl. [a]] for destroying a vessel with intent to prejudice the underwriters, and after a verdict of guilty, his counsel moved the Court for a new trial upon the following grounds:

1. That the exemplification of the acts of the legislature of the State of Massachusetts, incorporating the Boston Insurance Company, (who were the underwriters,) given at the trial, was not admissible in evidence as a sufficient verification thereof. The papers given in evidence were printed copies of the acts, with certain erasures and interlineations in writing, and to the copy of each act was annexed a separate attestation in the following words: 'A true copy, attest, Edward D. Bangs, Secretary.' The copies were attached together, and exemplified under the great seal of the State of Massachusetts, with the following certificate annexed: 'Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Secretary's Department, November 12th, 1825. I certify that the printed copies of the following acts, viz. 'An Act to define the Powers, Duties, and Restrictions of Insurance Companies'-'An act authorizing the several Insurance Companies in this Commonwealth to insure against Fire'-'An act to incorporate the Boston Insurance Company'-'An act to incorporate the Commonwealth Insurance Company'-and 'An act in addition to an act, entitled, an act to incorporate the Commonwealth Insurance Company;' to which printed copies this certificate is annexed, have been by me compared with the original acts on file in this office, and that the same are now true copies of the said original acts, except the usual attestation of enactment, and signatures subjoined to each act. In testimony whereof, I hereunto set my hand, and have affixed the seal of said Commonwealth, the day and year above mentioned. (Signed.) EDWARD D. BANGS, Secretary of the Commonwealth.'

2. That before the policy of insurance underwritten by the Boston Insurance Company could be given in evidence, it was necessary to prove that the subscription to the stock, and the payment of such subscription, as required by the act of incorporation, had actually been made. The policy of insurance was admitted in evidence by the Court below, without proof that the subscription to the stock had actually been made; it being proved that there was a company in Boston called the Boston Insurance Company, doing the business of insurance, and paying losses when incurred, and that the paper produced was executed after the manner in which they usually made their policies of insurance.

3. That the policy ought to have been proved to be executed by the authority of the company, in such manner as to be legally binding on them.

4. That the Court instructed the jury 'that it was not material whether the company was incorporated or not; and it was not material whether the policy were valid in law or not; that the prisoner's guilt did not depend upon the legal obligation of the policy; but upon the question whether he had wilfully and corruptly cast away the vessel, as charged in the indictment, with intent to injure the underwriters.

The Judges of the Court below having been divided in opinion upon the motion for a new trial, the case was brought before this Court upon a certificate of that division.

Mr. Worthington, for the prisoner, argued, that, in order to convict him of the offence charged in the indictment, it was necessary that the policy of insurance should be a valid contract. The intent with which an act is done is not susceptible of direct proof. The only means by which it can be established is by evidence of facts from which it may be directly inferred. If the probable consequence of the act done is to produce the result from which the intent is inferred, the inference may be reasonable; but when, by no possibility, the result could occur, how can a fraudulent intent be inferred? If, in this case, the policy were valid, the probable consequence of the destruction of the vessel is a prejudice to the underwriters, from which might be fairly inferred, in the absence of explanatory testimony, a design to prejudice. But if the policy was void, no such consequence could possibly happen, and no inference can arise, from it alone, of a design to produce such a consequence. The strongest analogous cases are those of forgery, in which the distinction appears clearly to have been taken. In those cases it has been determined, that where the probable consequence of the act was to defraud, the intent might be inferred. But, where such was not the case, as where the instrument was void on its face, and, therefore, could not deceive if ordinary vigilance was exerted, the intent could not be inferred. [b] Thus, where one Wall was indicted and convicted of the forgery of a will void under the statute of frauds, the conviction was held to be erroneous. [c] This question appears to have been decided in England in the case of the King v. Gillson. [d] In that case, the prisoner was indicted under the statute of 43 Geo. III. c. 58. s. 1. for feloniously setting fire to a house, with intent to defraud the London Assurance Company. A policy was produced, regularly executed, covering goods in Woodstreet, on which was endorsed a memorandum, stating that the goods were removed to Old Boswell Court, and that the removal was allowed. This memorandum was not stamped. The question arose, whether the written contract, being void by the revenue laws for want of a stamp, was properly admitted in evidence, and it was determined that the evidence was not admissible. In the case of the United States v. Johns, [e] this point was decided, and the Court held, that it was necessary to prove a valid policy. If, then, the validity of the policy is essential to the offence, it becomes necessary in this case to show a legally subsisting corporation, capable of executing a valid policy of insurance, and a policy legally executed. On the first point, it might be contended on the part of the prosecution, that though it may be necessary to prove a party actually contracting, yet that proof of a corporation de facto would be sufficient. But, it was insisted, a corporation exists by its charter alone. It is that which controls its operations, and settles the mode and extent of its obligations. If the validity of the policy is necessary, it is surely essential to show that the body which executes it was legally empowered to do so, and that the act itself was performed in pursuance of those powers. This question was so decided in the case of the United States v. Johns. It was insisted, that the papers given in evidence did not afford evidence of these facts, because they were described in the certificate as printed papers, whereas they are partly written; and they were so loosely attached to the paper to which the seal is affixed as not to afford satisfactory evidence that they were the papers intended to be verified. If, however, the papers should be deemed sufficiently authenticated, still it is necessary, in order to show a valid policy, to exhibit evidence that the corporation went into operation according to the terms of its charter. [f] It was also insisted, that a corporation was not a 'person,' within the meaning of the act of Congress. This point was raised in the case of the United States v. Johns, but not decided. It appears, however, to have been determined in England, in the case of the King v. Harrison. [g]

The Attorney General, for the United States, argued, that the evidence given of the acts of the legislature of Massachusetts incorporating the Boston Insurance Company, who were the underwriters intended to be prejudiced by the felony, was sufficient under the act of Congress of the 26th of May, 1790, c. 38. [xl.] prescribing the manner in which the public acts, &c. of each State shall be authenticated, so as to give them full faith and credit in every other State. All that the statute requires, in respect to legislative acts, is, that the seal of the State should be affixed, and that obviates every objection which had been made to the exemplification in this case.

It was further contended, that proof that the company actually carried on the business of insurance was sufficient, in a public criminal prosecution, without showing that they were legally authorized to transact it. It was immaterial whether there was a valid policy or not. The guilt of the act consists in the act itself, and the animus with which it was committed. It was analogous to the cases of forging a will, where the act was intended to defraud, not the party whose signature is forged, but third persons, and it turns out the testator was alive. [h] The guilt in such cases cannot depend upon the certainty that the party would have the benefit of the crime, had his attempt been successful. In the case of the King v. Gillson, the objection was not to the proof of the policy, but to the written endorsement or memorandum, which a particular statute had specially declared inadmissible in evidence unless stamped. It was, on its face, inadmissible, and the existence of the insurance could not, therefore, be established. As to the requisition of proof that the conditions of the incorporating act had been complied with, it was a sufficient answer to say, that the party was estopped from denying it, by receiving a policy executed by the company. To require proof of a valid contract would be to go into the whole case as a civil action, and would require an investigation of the whole law of insurance. Whether the term 'person or persons,' in a statute, includes such artificial persons as a corporation, had never been decided in this country. The supposed authority cited in the negative, [i] was entitled to the less weight, as it rested merely upon a MS. note of Mr. Justice Buller, was decided without argument, and is contrary to the analogy of the law which regards corporations as persons for all civil purposes. Lord Coke, in commenting on the statute 31 Eliz. ch. 7. concerning the erection of cottages, where the term used is, 'no person shall,' &c. says, 'this extends as well to persons politic and incorporate, as to natural persons whatsoever. [j] The other authorities are to the same purpose, and consider the term persons as including those artificial beings called corporations, as well as natural persons. [k]

Mr. Coxe, for the prisoner, in reply, stated, that in order to determine the questions in the case, it was important to consider the character of the offence created by the statute, and charged in the indictment.

In ordinary cases of crime, the act charged is, in itself, criminal; the intent to commit the offence is legally inferred from the act itself. In murder, the act of killing draws after it the legal inference of the malice prepense; in larceny, the act of taking the property of another proves the animus furandi, and so in other instances. The intent, or mental design, is, in all these instances, proved by the act, and this intent is co-extensive with the act done. In the present case, however, the act done by the accused is innocent and legal in itself. He was the owner of the vessel-so charged in the indictment. In that character he might destroy his own property without being chargeable with any evil disposition or design. The simple act of destruction is, then, evidence of no criminality. Whence, then, does not criminality arise? From the intent to prejudice the underwriter. This intent is the hidden operation of the mind, legally to be inferred from certain facts positively proved. Those facts, which alone can warrant this inference, are, first, that such a person exists as the indictment charges that he designed to prejudice; second, that such person was in the situation which made such act likely to prove prejudicial. The first, therefore, requires that such a party should be in existence; the second, that his relation should be proved to subsist.

It is essential, then, that it should appear in proof that there was such a corporation as the Boston Insurance Company, because, unless such a party existed, the law cannot infer the design to prejudice it. It is equally essential, that a valid policy of insurance should be proved, because, unless that party was placed in the situation in which it could be injured by the destruction of the vessel, it is impossible that such a design can be inferred.

These circumstances, then, are of the very essence of the crime charged, and must be established by plenary proof. How, then, is the existence of the corporation to be proved? In cases in which it is a plaintiff, it must also prove its existence; and this is to be done by the production of the charter, or the act of incorporation. [l] It cannot be pleaded in abatement by a defendant, sued by a corporation, that there is no such corporation, because, as that fact must be necessarily proved as part of the title, it is included in the general issue. In the case of the United States v. Johns, [m] (more fully, as to this point, reported in a MS. statement of the case by Mr. Justice Washington,) on an indictment under this act of Congress, proof of the act of incorporation was required and produced.


^a  Which provides, (s. 2.) 'That if any person shall, on the high seas, wilfully and corruptly cast away, burn, or otherwise destroy, any ship or vessel of which he is owner in part or in whole, or in anywise direct or procure the same to be done, with intent or design to prejudice any person or persons that hath underwritten, or shall underwrite, any policy or policies of insurance thereon or of any merchant or merchants that shall load goods thereon, or of any other owner or owners of such ship or vessel, the person or persons offending therein, being thereof lawfully convicted, shall be deemed and adjudged guilty of felony, and shall suffer death.'

It is stated, in a note to the case of the United States v. Johns, 4 Dall. Rep. 412. that the second member of the above section is so inaccurately expressed, that the Attorney of the District (Mr. Dallas) thought, at first, there must have been some error of the press; but the Secretary of State informed him, that the printed copy was found, upon a comparison, to agree exactly with the roll. See the analogous English statutes, 4 Geo. I. c. 12. s. 3. and 11 Geo. I. c. 29. 1 Abbott on Shipp. 167, 168.

^b  Jones' case, 2 East's Cro. Law, 952.

^c  2 East's Cro. Law, 953. Moffat's case, 2 East's Cro. Law, 354. 2 Leach, 483.

^d  1 Taunt. Rep. 95.

^e  4 Dall. Rep. 412.

^f  Henriquez v. The Dutch West India Company, cited in 2 Lord Raym. 1535. 4 Com. Dig. 468. note a, Am. ed.

^g  1 Leach, 180. 2 East's Pl. Cro. 927. 988.

^h  Hawk. Pl. Cro. ch. 70. s. 7. 2 East's Pl. Cro. 948.

^i  2 East's Cro. Law, 988. 1 Leach, 215.

^j  2 Inst. 736.

^k  1 Mod. Rep. 164. 1 Woodes. Rep. 195. 1 Bl. Comm. 176.

^l  2 Lord Raym. 1535.

^m  4 Dall. Rep. 412.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).