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CLYATT v. U S, 197 U.S. 207 (1905)

U.S. Supreme Court

CLYATT v. U S, 197 U.S. 207 (1905)

197 U.S. 207

SAMUEL M. CLYATT
v.
UNITED STATES.
No. 235.

Argued December 13, 14, 1904.
Decided March 13, 1905.

[197 U.S. 207, 208]   Sections 1990 and 5526, Rev. Stat. (U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, pp. 1266, 3715), read:

On November 21, 1901, the grand jury returned into the circuit court of the United States for the northern district of Florida an indictment in two counts, the first of which is as follows:

The second count differs only in charging that defendant caused and aided in returning Gordon and Ridley. A trial resulted in a verdict of guilty, and thereupon the defendant was sentenced to confinement at hard labor for four years. The case was taken on appropriate writ to the court of appeals for the fifth circuit, which certified to this court three questions. Subsequently the entire record was brought here on a writ of certiorari, and the case was heard on its merits.

Messrs. William G. Brantley, A. O. Bacon, and W. M. Hammond for Clyatt.

[197 U.S. 207, 213]   Attorney General Moody and assistant Attorney General Purdy for the United States.

[197 U.S. 207, 215]  

Mr. Justice Brewer delivered the opinion of the court:

The constitutionality and scope of 1990 and 5526 present the first questions for our consideration. They prohibit peonage. What is peonage? It may be defined as a status or condition of compulsory service, based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master. The basal fact is indebtedness. As said by Judge Benedict, delivering the opinion in Jaremillo v. Romero, 1 N. M. 190, 194: 'One fact existed universally: all were indebted to their masters. This was the cord by which they seemed bound to their master's service.' Upon this is based a condition of compulsory service. Peonage is sometimes classified as voluntary or involuntary; but this implies simply a difference in the mode of origin, but none in the character of the servitude. The one exists where the debtor voluntarily contracts to enter the service of his creditor. The other is forced upon the debtor by some provision of law. But peonage, however created, is compulsory service,-involuntary servitude. The peon can release himself therefrom, it is true, by the payment of the debt, but otherwise the service is enforced. A clear distinction exists between peonage and the voluntary performance of labor or rendering of services in payment of a debt. In the latter case the debtor, though contracting to pay his indebtedness by labor or service, and subject, like any other contractor, to an action for damages for breach of that contract, can elect at any time to break it, and no law or force compels [197 U.S. 207, 216]   performance or a continuance of the service. We need not stop to consider any possible limits or exceptional cases, such as the service of a sailor ( Robertson v. Baldwin, 165 U.S. 275 , 41 L. ed. 715, 17 Sup. Ct. Rep. 326), or the obligations of a child to its parents, or of an apprentice to his master, or the power of the legislature to make unlawful, and punish criminally, an abandonment by an employee of his post of labor in any extreme cases. That which is contemplated by the statute is compulsory service to secure the payment of a debt. Is this legislation within the power of Congress? It may be conceded, as a general proposition, that the ordinary relations of individual to individual are subject to the control of the states, and are not intrusted to the general government; but the 13th Amendment, adopted as an outcome of the Civil War, reads:

This amendment denounces a status or condition, irrespective of the manner or authority by which it is created. The prohibitions of the 14th and 15th Amendments are largely upon the acts of the states; but the 13th Amendment names no party or authority, but simply forbids slavery and involuntary servitude, grants to Congress power to enforce this prohibition by appropriate legislation. The differences between the 13th and subsequent amendments have been so fully considered by this court that it is enough to refer to the decisions. In the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3, 20 , 23 S., 27 L. ed. 835, 842, 843, 3 Sup. Ct. Rep. 18, 28, 30, Mr. Justice Bradley, delivering the opinion of the court, uses this language:

Other authorities to the same effect might be cited. It is not open to doubt that Congress may enforce the 13th Amendment by direct legislation, punishing the holding of a person in slavery or in involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime. In the exercise of that power Congress has enacted these sections denouncing peonage, and punishing one who holds another in that condition of involuntary servitude. This legislation is not limited to the territories or other parts of the strictly national domain, but is operative in the states and wherever the soverignty of the United States extends. We entertain no doubt of the validity of this legislation, or its applicability to the case of any person holding and wherever the sovereignty of the United whether there be a municipal ordinance or state law sanctioning such holding. It operates directly on every citizen of the Republic, wherever his residence may be.

Section 5526 punishes 'every person who holds, arrests, returns, or causes to be held, arrested, or returned.' Three distinct acts are here mentioned,-holding, arresting, returning. [197 U.S. 207, 219]   The disjunctive 'or' indicates the separation between them, and shows that either one may be the subject of indictment and punishment. A party may hold another in a state of peonage without ever having arrested him for that purpose. He may come by inheritance into the possession of an estate in which the peon is held, and he simply continues the condition which was existing before he came into possession. He may also arrest an individual for the purpose of placing him in a condition of peonage, and this whether he be the one to whom the involuntary service is to be rendered or simply employed for the purpose of making the arrest. Or he may, after one has fled from a state of peonage, return him to it, and this whether he himself claims the service or is acting simply as an agent of another to enforce the return.

The indictment charges that the defendant did 'unlawfully and knowingly return one Will Gordon and one Mose Ridley to a condition of peonage, by forcibly, and against the will of them, the said Will Gordon and the said Mose Ridley, returning them, the said Will Gordon and the said Mose Ridley, to work to and for Samuel M. Clyatt.'

Now a 'return' implies the prior existence of some state or condition. Webster defines it 'to turn back; to go or come again to the same place or condition.' In the Standard dictionary it is defined 'to cause to take again a former position; put, carry, or send back, as to a former place or holder.' A technical meaning in the law is thus given in Black's Law Dictionary: 'The act of a sheriff, constable, or other ministerial officer, in delivering back to the court a writ, notice, or other paper.'

It was essential, therefore, under the charge in this case, to show that Gordon and Ridley had been in a condition of peonage, to which, by the act of the defendant, they were returned. We are not at liberty to transform this indictment into one charging that the defendant held them in a condition or state of peonage, or that he arrested them with a view of placing them in such condition or state. The pleader has seen [197 U.S. 207, 220]   fit to charge a return to a condition of peonage. The defendant had a right to rely upon that as the charge, and to either offer testimony to show that Gordon and Ridley had never been in a condition of peonage, or to rest upon the government's omission of proof of that fact.

We must, therefore, examine the testimony; and the first question that arises is whether the record sufficiently shows that it contains all the testimony. The bill of exceptions, after reciting the impaneling of the jury, proceeds in these words:

That recital is followed by what purports to be the testimony of the witness. Then follows in succession the testimony of several witnesses, each being preceded by a statement in a form similar to this: 'The plaintiff then introduced and offered as a witness, H. S. Sutton, who, being first duly sworn, did testify as follows.' At the close of the testimony of the last witness named is this statement:

It is true there is no affirmative statement in the bill of exceptions that it contains all the testimony, but such omission is not fatal. This question was presented in Gunnison County v. E. H. Rollins & Sons, 173 U.S. 255 , 43 L. ed. 689, 19 Sup. Ct. Rep. 390, a civil case, brought to this court on certiorari to the circuit court of appeals, which court had held that the bill of exceptions did not purport to contain all the evidence adduced at the trial, and for that reason did not consider the question whether error was committed in instructing the jury to find for the defendant. Mr. Justice Harlan, delivering the unanimous opinion [197 U.S. 207, 221]   of the court, disposed of that question in these words (p. 261, L. ed. p. 693, Sup. Ct. Rep. p. 392):

The present case is completely covered by that decision. If, in a civil case, such recitals in the bill of exceptions are sufficient to show that it contains all the testimony, a fortiori should this be the rule in a criminal the question of his guilt by an omission from not be deprived of a full consideration of the question of his guilty by an omission from the bill of the technical recital that it contains all the evidence.

While no motion or request was made that the jury be instructed to find for defendant, and although such a motion is the proper method of presenting the question whether there is evidence to sustain the verdict, yet Wiborg v. United States, [197 U.S. 207, 222]   163 U.S. 632, 658 , 41 S. L. ed. 290, 298, 16 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1127, 1197, justifies us in examining the question in case a plain error has been committed in a matter so vital to the defendant.

The testimony discloses that the defendant, with another party, went to Florida, and caused the arrest of Gordon and Ridley on warrants issued by a magistrate in Georgia for larceny; but there can be little doubt that these criminal proceedings were only an excuse for securing the custody of Gordon and Ridley, and taking them back to Georgia to work out a debt. At any rate, there was abundant testimony from which the jury could find that to have been the fact. While this is true, there is not a scintilla of testimony to show that Gordon and Ridley were ever theretofore in a condition of peonage. That they were in debt, and that they had left Georgia and gone to Florida without paying that debt, does not show that they had been held in a condition of peonage, or were ever at work, willingly or unwillingly, for their creditor. We have examined the testimony with great care to see if there was anything which would justify a finding of the fact, and can find nothing. No matter how severe may be the condemnation which is due to the conduct of a party charged with a criminal offense, it is the imperative duty of a court to see that all the elements of his crime are proved, or at least that testimony is offered which justifies a jury in finding those elements. Only in the exact administration of the law will justice in the long run be done, and the confidence of the public in such administration be maintained.

We are constrained, therefore, to order a reversal of the judgment, and remand the case for a new trial.

Mr. Justice McKenna concurs in the judgment.

Mr. Justice Harlan:

I concur with my brethren in holding that the statutes in question relating to peonage are valid under the Constitution of the United States. I agree, also, that the record sufficiently shows that it contains all the evidence introduced at the trial. [197 U.S. 207, 223]   But I cannot agree in holding that the trial court erred in not taking the case from the jury. Without going into the details of the evidence, I care only to say that, in my opinion, there was evidence tending to make a case within the statute. The opinion of the court concedes that there was abundant testimony to show that the accused, with another, went from Georgia to Florida to arrest the two negroes, Gordon and Ridley, and take them, against their will, back to Georgia to work out a debt. And they were taken to Georgia by force. It is conceded that peonage is based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master. The accused admitted to one of the witnesses that the negroes owed him. In any view, there was no motion or request to direct a verdict for the defendant. The accused made no objection to the submission of the case to the jury, and it is going very far to hold in a case like this, disclosing barbarities of the worst kind against these negroes, that he trial court erred in sending the case to the jury.

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