United States v. Northern Pacific Railway Company (242 U.S. 190)/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

242 U.S. 190

United States  v.  Northern Pacific Railway Company

 Argued: October 27, 1916. --- Decided: December 4, 1916


It will be seen from the foregoing statement of facts that the question presented by the record in this case for decision is: Assuming that the law required that, in the report of the company filed on November 30th, 1911, the names of these five employees of the defendant should have been included as having been on duty for more than sixteen hours, and that their names were omitted from that report because it was in good faith believed that their hours of service should be computed from 10:35 o'clock P. M., and that, therefore, they had not been on duty in excess of sixteen hours, is the company liable for the 'forfeitures' prescribed by the statute, judgment for which was prayed for in the complaint?

Section 20 of the Act to Regulate interstate Commerce of February 4, 1887, as amended June 18, 1910 (36 Stat. at L. 556, chap. 309, Comp. Stat. 1913, § 8592), requires the filing of elaborate annual reports by carriers and also the filing of such special reports as the Commission may, by general or special order, require. On the 28th day of June, 1911, the Commission ordered that all carriers subject to the provisions of the act should report 'under oath' within thirty days after the end of each month all instances of employees who had been on duty for a longer time than that required by the act. It is for violation of this order, which has the effect of statute law, that this suit was instituted, it being admitted by the government that the failure to mention these five men in the report by the defendant, filed at the proper time, and which contained a report of many men kept on duty for a period longer than the time allowed by law, was due to the fact that it in good faith believed that these men commenced their time of service at 10:35 instead of at 8:10 o'clock, and that therefore they were not on duty more than the sixteen hours prescribed by the statute. The defendant in error contends that judgment is asked for an omission caused by an honest mistake with respect to a genuinely doubtful case in a report which was properly filed, and this, it is claimed, is not a violation of the law. The statute is a penal one and should be applied only to cases coming plainly within its terms. Providence Steam Engine Co. v. Hubbard, 101 U.S. 188, 25 L. ed. 786. While the reports filed must be truthful reports (Yates v. Jones Nat. Bank, 206 U.S. 158, 51 L. ed. 1002, 27 Sup. Ct. Rep. 638), yet, since they must be made under oath, the penalties for perjury would seem to be the direct and sufficient sanction relied upon by the lawmaking power to secure their correctness.

We are confirmed in this conclusion by the fact that the annual report required of carriers by this same § 20 of the act calls for so great an amount of detailed information that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to prepare such a report without making some unintentional omission or mistake, and we cannot bring ourselves to think that Congress intended to punish such an innocent mistake or omission with a penalty of $100 a day.

There are, to be sure, many statutes which punish violations of their requirements regardless of the intent of the persons violating them; but innocent mistakes, made in reporting facts, where the circumstances are such that candid-minded men may well differ in their conclusions with respect to them, should not be punished by exacting penalties, except where the express letter of the statute so requires; and we conclude that the section under discussion contains no such requirement. In reports in which a mistake is much more likely to prove harmful than in such a report as we have here, the national banking laws punish mistakes only where 'knowingly' made.

It is argued that if good faith will excuse an omission or a mistaken statement in this report, it will be widely taken advantage of as a cover for making false and fraudulent statements in such reports in the future. Such a prospect seems quite groundless, since many, if not most, criminal laws imposing penalties are made applicable only in cases where corrupt intent or purpose is established to the satisfaction of a court or jury; yet such requirement has not been found in practice to be an encouragement to wrongdoing.

The fact that the government sues for only one-fifty-seventh part of the forfeitures which had accrued under the construction of the rule and statute contended for by it should make us slow to attribute to Congress a purpose to exact what is thus admitted to be a punishment greatly disproportionate to the offense. Statutes should be construed, as far as possible, so that those subject to their control may, by reference to their terms, ascertain the measure of their duty and obligation, rather than that such measure should be dependent upon the discretion of executive officers, to the end that ours may continue to be a government of written laws rather than one of official grace.

It being very clear that it is not the purpose of the law under discussion to punish honest mistakes, made in a genuinely doubtful case, the decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals is affirmed.

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).