The Collector v. Beggs/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

84 U.S. 182

The Collector  v.  Beggs


The twentieth section of the act of Congress in question prescribed a mode for the ascertainment of the quantity of spirits for which a distiller was required to account in his monthly returns to the assessor. By a previous section the distiller was required to make a return, but the twentieth section made it the duty of the assessor, on the receipt of the distiller's first return in each month, to inquire and determine whether he had accounted, in his return for the preceding month, for all the spirits produced by him, and, to determine the quantity of spirits thus to be accounted for, it required that the whole quantity of materials used for the production of spirits should be ascertained. It gave also a rule by which the quantity of materials used for the production of spirits should be ascertained and settled by the assessor, and it then enacted that in case the return of the distiller had been less than the quantity thus ascertained, be should be liable to be assessed for such deficiency, at the rate of fifty cents for every proof gallon, together with the special tax of $4 for every cask of forty proof gallons, which the collector was required to collect. It also enacted that in no case should the quantity of spirits returned by the distiller, together with the quantity so assessed, be less than 80 per centum of the producing capacity of the distillery, as estimated under the provisions of the act.

The next preceding section (the 19th) made it the duty of every distiller, on the 1st, 11th, and 21st days of each month, or within five days thereafter, to render to the assistant assessor an account in duplicate, taken from books he was required to keep, stating not only the number of wine gallons and of proof gallons of spirits produced and placed in warehouse, but also the quantity and kind of materials used for the production of spirits each day.

The purpose of these requisitions, as well as of many others made by the statute, was obviously to guard against fraudulent returns, and to secure to the government a tax upon all spirits produced, and upon all which might have been produced from the quantity of materials used. Hence the distiller was required to return, not merely the amount of his product, but the kind and quantity of materials used by him, and the assessor was directed to test the accuracy of that return, and to estimate, from the quantity of materials ascertained by him to have been used, the number of gallons of spirits which should have been accounted for. The quantity of materials used, as ascertained by the assessor, was made a measure of production, and upon all spirits ascertained by that measure to have been produced, either actually or potentially, the distiller was expressly required, by the twentieth section, to pay the tax, without any reference to his return, or to what had been actually produced. In no case could he escape from liability to pay a tax on at least 80 per centum of what his distillery was estimated to be capable of producing, but if he produced more, or if the quantity of materials which he had used, as ascertained and determined by the assessor, showed that his production had been or should have been greater, he was subjected to the required tax on the quantity of spirits which that ascertained quantity of materials was capable of producing, and not merely upon 80 per centum of that quantity. This was the unequivocal language of the act. Thus the quantity of materials used, as ascertained by the assessor, and not the actual product of spirits, was made the measure of liability to taxation and of its extent.

This construction of the 20th section is in entire harmony with all the other parts of the act. The 10th section directed a survey of every distillery registered, or intended to be registered, for the production of spirits, in order to estimate and determine its true producing capacity. This survey was required to be made by the assessor of the collection district, with the aid of some competent and skilful person, to be designated by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. The mode in which the producing capacity of the distillery was to be ascertained, as prescribed by the regulations of the commissioner, was by measuring each mash, or fermenting tub-by calculating how many bushels of grain, when mashed (if grain was used), the fermenters would hold, by considering the period of fermentation, and deducing therefrom the number of bushels which could be fermented in twenty-four hours. This ascertained, the assessor and his assistant were directed to estimate the quantity of spirits that could be produced in the distillery from a bushel of grain, and multiplying that by the number of bushels that could be fermented therein in twenty-four hours, the producing capacity of the distillery was to be ascertained and fixed as a standard of taxation, or rather to determine the minimum of taxation. At all events the distiller was made taxable for a production of spirits not less than 80 per cent. of the producing capacity of his distillery, as determined by the survey, whether that quantity was actually produced by him or not; or whether he used a bushel of grain or not. Eighty per cent. of the estimated (not the actual) capacity of the distillery was the smallest amount for which he was made taxable. But if he actually produced more, or if the quantity of grain or other materials used for distillation, as ascertained by the assessor, showed a larger production, he was made taxable to the full extent of that production thus shown. No other interpretation can be given to the 20th section.

Now, applying this to the facts of this case as found by the Circuit Court, it becomes very evident that the judgment should have been given for the defendant below.

It is true the actual production of spirits for the three months, September, October, and November, 1868, as returned by the plaintiff below, and correctly returned, was more than 80 per cent. of the producing capacity of his distillery for those three months. Whether it was more than 80 per cent. of the producing capacity, as determined by the survey, provided for in the tenth section of the act, is not found, nor is it material. It is found that by reason of the survey made in pursuance of that section, the distillery was estimated to be capable of producing from each bushel of grain used, three and one-quarter gallons of spirits; that the quantities reported by the plaintiff, as having been produced during those three months, were less than three and one-quarter gallons for each bushel of grain used by him during that time, and that the additional assessment made, of which he complains, was for the difference between the quantity reported in his returns and the estimated product of three and one-quarter gallons for each bushel of grain used, the possible production determined by the survey. Such being the facts, as found, the plaintiff was expressly declared by the 20th section to be assessable for the difference between his return and the estimated possible product, and it was made the duty of the collector to collect it. The survey and estimate of producing capacity made under the 10th section were conclusive, while they remained, though subject to revision, under the direction of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. And the extent of liability to taxation was, under the act of Congress, directed to be measured, not by the actual product of spirits, but by what should have been the product of the materials used, according to the estimate made under the 10th section.

It follows that the assessment made was legal, and that the plaintiff is not entitled to recover. The Circuit Court, therefore, erred in giving judgment for the plaintiff.

JUDGMENT REVERSED, and the record remitted with instructions to enter

JUDGMENT FOR THE DEFENDANT.

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).