United States v. Coombs
THIS case came before the Court on a certificate of a division of opinion between the judges of the circuit court for the southern district of New York.
Lawrence Coombs was indicted under the 9th section of the act entitled, 'an act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes, approved the 3d of March, 1825,' for having, on the 21st of November, 1836, feloniously stolen at Rockaway Beach, in the southern district of New York, one trunk of the value of five dollars, one package of yarn of the value of five dollars, one package of silk of the value of five dollars, one roll of ribbons of the value of five dollars, one package of muslin of the value of five dollars, and six pairs of hose of the value of five dollars; which said goods, wares and merchandise, belonged to the ship Bristol, the said ship then being in distress and cast away on a shoal of the sea on the coast of the state of New York, within the southern district of New York. On this indictment the prisoner was arraigned, and plead not guilty, and put himself upon his country for trial.
It was admitted that the goods mentioned in the indictment, and which belonged to the said ship Bristol, were taken above high water mark, upon the beach, in the county of Queens; whereupon the question arose, whether the offence committed was within the jurisdiction of the court; and on this point the judges were opposed in opinion.
Which said point upon which the disagreement happened, was stated under the direction of the judges of the court, at the request of the counsel for the United States, and of Lawrence Coombs, parties in the cause; and ordered to be certified unto the Supreme Court at the next session, pursuant to the act in such case made and provided.
The case was argued by Mr. Butler, attorney general of the United States. No counsel appeared for the defendant.
Mr. Butler stated that no jurisdiction could exist over the case, unless it was given by the acts of congress. The first crimes act of the United States, of 1790, and the act of 1825, showed the object of congress to have been to prevent the perpetration of such crimes as those charged against the defendant. The penalties imposed by the first act, were found to be too heavy. The act of 1825 was passed, and many offences were included in it which were in the first law. These offences were those which might be committed 'on the high seas, and out of the jurisdiction of a particular state.' But the 9th section omits the limitation of 'the high seas,' &c.
The ship must be cast away, or be in distress, or be wrecked in the admiralty jurisdiction; and if any person steals goods belonging to her, the punishment attaches. In this case, it was admitted that the ship was in the condition described in the act; but the goods were above high water mark when stolen.
The rest of the section shows that the object of congress was to include cases above high water mark. 'Showing false lights' would, in most cases, be on the shore and in places above the tide.
No serious doubt of the power of congress to punish such offences can exist. The power given by the constitution to regulate commerce, necessarily includes the power to protect the goods which are the subject of commerce; and it is of no consequence whether the commerce is foreign or domestic.
The view which congress entertained of this power, is shown by its legislation in the first crimes act; in which, aiding or advising in piracy, is made punishable. These are acts which, in many cases, would be done on shore. All that is necessary is, that the matter which is the subject of the prosecution, shall be connected with, or have grown out of commerce.
Mr. Justice STORY delivered the opinion of the Court.