The Pizarro/Opinion of the Court

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The Pizarro by Joseph Story
Opinion of the Court
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court

It is upon the ship's papers, and the examinations thus taken in preparatory, that the cause ought, in the first instance, to be heard in the district court; and upon such hearing it is to judge whether the cause be of such doubt as to require farther proof; and if so, whether the claimant has entitled himself to the benefit of introducing it. If the court should deny such order when it ought to be granted, or allow it when it ought to be denied, and the objection be taken by the party and appear upon the record, the appellate court can administer the proper relief. If, however, evidence in the nature of farther proof be introduced, and no formal order or objection appear on the record, it must be presumed to have been done by consent of parties, and the irregularity is completely waived. In the present case, no exception was taken to the proceedings or evidence in the district court; and we should not, therefore, incline to reject the farther proof, even if we were of opinion that it ought not, in strictness, to have been admitted.

The objection, which is urged against the admission of the farther proof would, under other circumstances, deserve great consideration. Concealment, or even spoliation of papers, is not of itself a sufficient ground for condemnation in a prize court. It is, undoubtedly, a very awakening circumstance, calculated to excite the vigilance, and justify the suspicions of the court. But it is a circumstance open to explanation, for it may have arisen from accident, necessity, or superior force; and if the party in the first instance fairly and frankly explains it to the satisfaction of the court, it deprives him of no right to which he is otherwise entitled. If, on the other hand, the spoliation be unexplained, or the explanation appear weak and futile; if the cause labour under heavy suspicions, or there be a vehement presumption of bad faith, or gross prevarication, it is made the ground of a denial of farther proof, and condemnation ensues from defects in the evidence which the party is not permitted to supply.

In the present case there can be no doubt that there has been a gross prevarication and suppression of testimony by the master and supercargo. Nothing can be more loose and unsatisfactory than their first examinations; and the new and circumstantial details given upon their second examinations are inconsistent with the notion of perfect good faith in the first instance. The excuse, too, for throwing the packet of papers overboard is certainly not easily to be credited; for the ship's documents which still remained on board would, in the view of a Carthagenian privateer, have completely established a Spanish character. It is not, indeed, very easy to assign an adequate motive for the destruction of the papers. If the ship was Spanish, it was, as to American cruisers, immaterial to whom the cargo belonged; for, by our treaty with Spain, (treaty of 1795, art. 15.,) declaring that free ships shall make free goods, the property of an enemy on board of such a ship is just as much protected from capture as if it were neutral. The utmost, therefore, that this extraordinary conduct can justify on the part of the court is to institute a more rigid scrutiny into the character of the ship itself. If her national Spanish character be satisfactorily made out in evidence, the spoliation of the documentary proofs of the cargo will present no insuperable bar to a restitution. Very different would be the conclusion, if the case stood upon the ground of the law of nations, unaffected by the stipulations of a treaty.e

As to the first objection, it is certainly true that the ship was not furnished with such a sea letter, or passport, or such certificates as are described in the 17th article of the treaty. But the want of such documents is no substantive ground for condemnation. It only justifies the capture, and authorizes the captors to send the ship into a proper port for adjudication. The treaty expressly declares, that when ships shall be found without such requisites, they may be sent into port, and adjudged by the competent tribunal; and 'that all the circumstances of this omission having been well examined, they shall be adjudged to be legal prizes, unless they shall give legal satisfaction of their property by testimony entirely equivalent.' It is apparent, from this language, that the omission to comply with the requisites of the treaty was not intended to be fatal to the property. And, certainly, by the general law of nations, as well as by the particular stipulations of the treaty, the parties would be at liberty to give farther explanations of their conduct, and to make other proofs of their property. If, indeed, upon the original evidence, the cause should appear extremely doubtful or suspicious, and farther proof should be necessary, the grant or denial of it would rest upon the same general principles which govern the discretion of prize courts in other cases. But in the present case, there is no necessity for such farther proof, since the documents and testimony now before us, are, in our opinion, as to the proprietary interest in the ship, entirely equivalent to the passports and sea-letter required by the treaty.

As to the second objection, it assumes, as its basis, that the term 'subjects,' as used in the treaty, applies only to persons who, by birth or naturalization, owe a permanent allegiance to the Spanish government. It is, in our opinion, very clear that such is not the true interpretation of the language. The provisions of the treaty are manifestly designed to give reciprocal and co-extensive privileges to both countries; and to effectuate this object, the term 'subjects,' when applied to persons owing allegiance to Spain, must be construed in the same sense as the term 'citizens,' or 'inhabitants,' when applied to persons owing allegiance to the United States. What demonstrates the entire propriety of this construction is, that in the 18th article of the treaty, the terms 'subjects,' 'people,' and 'inhabitants,' are indiscriminately used as synonymous, to designate the same persons in both countries, and in cases obviously within the scope of the preceding articles. Indeed, in the language of the law of nations, which is always to be consulted in the interpretation of treaties, a person domiciled in a country, and enjoying the protection of its sovereign, is deemed a subject of that country. He owes allegiance to the country, while he resides in it; temporary, indeed, if he has not, by birth or naturalization, contracted a permanent allegiance; but so fixed that, as to all other nations, he follows the character of that country, in war as well as in peace. The mischiefs of a different construction would be very great; for it might then be contended that ships owned by Spanish subjects could be protected by the treaty, although they were domiciled in a foreign country, with which we were at war; and yet the law of nations would, in such a predicament, pronounce them enemies. We should, therefore, have no hesitation in over-ruling this objection, even if it were proved that Mr. Hibberson was not a naturalized subject of Spain; but we think the presumption very strong that he had become, in the strictest sense of the words, a Spanish subject.

The Spanish character of the ship being ascertained, it is unnecessary to inquire into the proprietary interest of the cargo, unless so far as to ascertain that it does not belong to citizens of the United States; for the treaty would certainly not protect the property of American citizens trading with the enemy in Spanish ships. There is no presumption, from the evidence, that any American interest is concerned in the shipment. The whole property belonged either to British subjects or to the claimants, and we think the proofs in the cause very strongly establish it to belong as claimed.

The decree of the circuit court is affirmed with costs.


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