Felton v. United States/Opinion of the Court

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Felton v. United States by Stephen Johnson Field
Opinion of the Court
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Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

96 U.S. 699

FELTON  v.  UNITED STATES


The act of Congress, in requiring the apparatus connecting the receiving cisterns in a distillery with the outlet of the worm and condenser to be constructed in such a manner as to prevent the abstraction of spirits while passing from the outlet and condenser back to the still and doubler, was designed to guard against frauds upon the revenue, the perpetration of which would be facilitated by any other construction. It did not intend to prohibit such abstraction when necessary, from unforeseen contingencies, to prevent the waste or destruction of the liquor. Accidents in the distillery-such as the breaking of the bands of the cisterns, and leakage from unknown defects, the danger of an approaching fire, fire, and many other causes-may not only render it necessary, but a duty, on the part of the distiller, to draw off the liquor in the speediest way. The spirit and purpose of the act are not to be lost sight of in a strict adherence to its letter. The offence, therefore, of the defendants consisted, not in their taking measures to save the low wines which were overflowing the receiver and running to waste, by drawing off a portion of the contents of the receiver and dumping it into the vats for redistillation, but in their omission to have a receiver of sufficient capacity to hold the low wines which were distilled on the eighteenth day of June, 1872. If they were culpable for the abstraction of the wines, it was because of such omission; and on this point the evidence failed in an essential particular. So far from showing or tending to show that, when the new still was made and placed in the distillery, the defendants, or any of their servants, had any knowledge of the incapacity of the receiver to hold all the wines that might be distilled on any day, it showed their ignorance of the defect until it was too late to remedy it for the distillation then taking place. There was, therefore, the absence of that knowledge which could render the neglect wilful, and therefore actionable. They must have 'knowingly and wilfully' omitted to furnish a receiver of sufficient capacity, before the severe penalty prescribed could be imposed upon them and their distilled spirits subjected to forfeiture. Doing or omitting to do a thing knowingly and wilfully, implies not only a knowledge of the thing, but a determination with a bad intent to do it or to omit doing it. 'The word 'wilfully," says Chief Justice Shaw, 'in the ordinary sense in which it is used i statutes, means not merely 'voluntarily,' but with a bad purpose.' 20 Pick. (Mass.) 220. 'It is frequently understood.' says Bishop, 'as signifying an evil intent without justifiable excuse.' Crim. Law, vol. i. sect. 428.

If the record were silent as to the want of knowledge of the superintendent, it would be presumed from his connection with the distillery that he knew the still was too large for the capacity of the receiver; and from his knowledge similar knowledge would be imputed to his principals. Parties are presumed to be acquainted with the utensils and machinery used in their business, and of course with their character and capacities. But the law at the same time is not so unreasonable as to attach culpability, and consequently to impose punishment, where there is no intention to evade its provisions, and the usual means to comply with them are adopted. All punitive legislation contemplates some relation between guilt and punishment. To inflict the latter where the former does not exist would shock the sense of justice of every one.

While, therefore, the presumption against the parties of knowledge of defects in the utensils and machinery of their distilleries is great, and not easily rebutted, it is not conclusive: it can be overcome. Distillers are not supposed to be experienced machinists, familiar with the construction of their different works, and with every thing required to render them perfect in all their parts. In many particulars they must necessarily rely to a great extent upon others. All that the law does require or can require of them, to avoid its penalties, is to use in good faith the ordinary means-by the employment of skilled artisans and competent inspectors-to secure utensils and machinery which will accomplish the end desired. If defects should then esist, and the end sought be not attained, or defects not ehn open to observation should subsequently be discovered, the parties cannot be charged with 'knowingly and wilfully' omitting to do what is required of them. We think, therefore, that the instruction requested should have been given. The object of the law in all its stringent provisions is to prevent fraud upon the revenue and to secure the tax levied. Here no fraud was intended by the defendants. It is so found by the jury; and, moreover, none could have been committed by them in what they did. The low wines drawn off passed into the vat, with other matter, for distillation. They were in that condition worthless, or nearly so, except for redistillation: they were not marketable spirits. The record so states, and adds that the parties in drawing off the wines, which were running over and going to waste, acted in good faith for the purpose of saving the property for themselves and the government; that is, as we understand it, of saving the property, and securing the tax to the government. If a purpose to evade the laws be an element in the offence charged, the defendants could not, under the evidence presented by the record, be rightfully subjected to the penalty prescribed and the forfeiture of their property.

The judgment will be reversed, and case remanded for a new trial; and it is

So ordered.

Notes[edit]

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).