Cotton v. United States (52 U.S. 229)
THIS case was brought up, by writ of error, from the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Florida.
It was an action of trespass quare clausum fregit, brought by the United States, for cutting trees upon the public lands, commenced in the Superror Court of West Florida in 1844, to which the defendant pleaded not guilty on the 26th of March, 1845. The cause remained pending in said court until the 15th of January 1848, when, in pursuance of the act of the 22d of February, 1847, ch. 17, § 8, it was transferred to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, and was ordered to stand for trial at the ensuing March term.
At that term the defendant appeared, and on leave filed a demurrer to the declaration, which, after argument, was overruled, and the cause set down for trial on the plea of not guilty.
The cause having come on, the defendant requested the court to charge the jury,--
1st. That the only remedy for the United States for cutting pine timber on the public lands was by indictment.
2d. That the United States have no common law remedy for private wrongs.
3d. That the right of the United States to bring this action must be derived either from an act of Congress or from the law of some State in which the contract was made by which it acquired the property on which this trespass is alleged to have been committed.
4th. These lands were acquired by treaty from Spain, and that the United States has no common law remedy for trespass committed thereon. And that, Congress not having authorized the exercise of this remedy, the plaintiff ought not to recover any damages.
Which charge the court refused to give; whereupon the defendant excepted.
The jury found the defendant guilty of the trespass, and assessed the damages of the United States at $362.50, for which amount, and $122.22 costs, judgment was entered up. A motion in arrest of judgment was overruled.
The Supreme Court having, at the last term, decided that it had jurisdiction in cases like this, under the act of the 27th of February, 1847, without reference to the amount in controversy, the case now came before the court on the points raised by the bill of exceptions. 9 How. 579.
It was argued by Mr. Walker, for the plaintiff in error, and Mr. Crittenden (Attorney-General), for the United States.
For the proper understanding of the points in the case, it is necessary to call the attention of the court to the act of the 2d of March, 1831 (4 Statutes at Large, 472), which was before it at the last term in the case of The United States v. Briggs, 9 Howard, 351, in which in was decided, that the cutting or procuring to be cut, removing or procuring to be removed, or aiding, or assisting, or being employed in the cutting of all descriptions of timber trees on the public lands, is an indictable offence under the said act, and punishable by fine and imprisonment.
No defence arising out of the passing of this act was pleaded either by way of abatement or specially.
The United States have the same right as any other proprietor to sue for trespasses on the public lands, and that right is not merged or lost by such trespasses having been made an offence punishable by indictment under the act of 1831. Dugan v. United States, 3 Wheat. 181; United States v. Gear, 3 Howard, 121; Manro v. Almeida, 10 Wheat. 494; Cross v. Gurthrie, 2 Root, Con. R. 90; Smith v. Weaver, 1 Taylor, 58; Blassingame v. Glaves, 6 B. Monroe, 38; Foster v. The Commonwealth, 8 Watts & Serg. 77.
Mr. Justice GRIER delivered the opinion of the court.