United States v. Bromley/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

53 U.S. 88

United States  v.  Bromley

This is a case on error, from the Circuit Court of the Northern District of New York.

An action of debt was brought in the District Court, under the tenth section of the act of the 3d of March, 1825, entitled 'An act to reduce the rates of postage, &c., and for the prevention of frauds on the revenue of the Post-Office Department.' It prohibits, under the penalties provided, any stagecoach, railroad car, steamboat, or other vehicle or vessel, or any of the owners, managers, servants, or crews of either, which regularly performs trips on a post-route, on which the mail is carried, from transporting letters, packages, or other mailable matter, except such as may have relation to some part of the cargo, or to some article at the same time conveyed in a stage or other vehicle.

The declaration charged the defendant Bromley, as the captain of the packet-boat Empire, which regularly performed trips on the canal between Albion and Rochester, in the state of New York, on which line the mail was transported, under the authority of the Post-Office Department, with transporting, otherwise then in the mail, divers letters, packets, and packages of letters, then and there being mailable matter, other than newspapers, &c., not having relation to the cargo.

The defendant pleaded nil debet, and the plaintiffs joined issue.

Evidence was given to show that the defendant was captain of the boat Empire, which performed trips between the places stated, and that the mail was regularly conveyed on the same route in 1845 and 1846. That Brainard, one of the witnesses, gave a note to Kelsey, the steward of the boat, written on two thirds of a sheet of foolscap paper, and folded the size of an ordinary letter, with a direction upon it, to be carried to Rochester. That the letter was an order to Mr. Palmer for tobacco, which was sent by the return boat, and for which Kelsey, the bearer, received fifty cents.

The testimony being closed, the defendant prayed the judge to instruct the jury that it did not establish a cause of action against the defendant; and the judge instructed the jury that the paper conveyed by the steward of the boat, Kelsey, from Albion to Rochester, as sworn to by the witnesses was not a letter or mailable matter, within the meaning of the act of Congress; but was a paper having a different and distinct character of its own, and could be lawfully carried by the said steward of the packet-boat aforesaid, and did therefore direct the jury to find for the defendant, which they did, and to which instruction the plaintiff excepted.

The cause was afterwards removed to the Circuit Court by writ of error, and by which court the judgment of the District Court was affirmed. This judgment of affirmance is now before us for revision.

This writ of error was issued under the act of the 31st of May, 1844, entitled 'An act to amend the Judiciary Act passed the 24th September, 1789, which provides that final judgments in any Circuit Court of the United States, in any civil action brought by the United States for the enforcement of the revenue laws of the United States, or for the collection of the duties due on merchandise imported therein, may be examined, and reversed or affirmed in the Supreme Court of the United States, without regard to the sum or value in controversy in such action, at the instance of either party.'

That the act which prescribes the offence charged is a revenue law, there would seem to be no doubt. In its title, it is declared to be an act to reduce the rates of postage, and for the 'prevention of frauds on the revenue of the Post-Office Department.' In its character and object it is a revenue law, as it acts upon the rates of postage and increases the revenue by prohibiting and punishing fraudulent acts which lessen it. Under the act of 1836, the revenue of the Post-Office Department is paid into the treasury. Revenue is the income of a state, and the revenue of the Post-Office Department, being raised by a tax on mailable matter conveyed in the mail, and which is disbursed in the public service, is as much a part of the income of the government as moneys collected for duties on imports.

We think the instruction of the court was erroneous. The letter or order, as it is called by some of the witnesses, was folded in the form of a letter and directed as such, though it was not sealed. A seal was not necessary to constitute it a letter or to make it chargeable with postage. The letter was not within the exception of the statute, as it did not relate to the cargo or to any article on board of the boat. It was an order for tobacco on Mr. Palmer, of Rochester, who was a dealer in that article. Among merchants, an order to the wholesale dealer for merchandise is a common subject of correspondence. And it may be doubted whether any other subject can be named on which more letters are written and forwarded in the mail. Two thirds of the half sheet which composed the letter was covered with writing, from which an inference may be drawn that something more than a mere order for goods was requested by the writer. But an order for goods, folded and directed as a letter, is clearly mailable matter, and a conveyance of it, as charged, is a violation of the law.

The judgment of the Circuit Court is reversed, and the cause is remanded to that court for further proceedings, according to law.

This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record, from the Circuit Court of the United States for the Northern District of New York, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered and adjudged by this court, that the judgment of the said Circuit Court in this cause be, and the same is hereby, reversed; and that this cause be, and the same is hereby, remanded to the said Circuit Court for further proceedings to be had therein, according to law.


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).