Published on:

Court Looks at Jurisdiction Issue in Murder Case


The Facts:

Defendant was indicted for murder in the circuit court for the district of Massachusetts. The indictment was founded on the 8th section of the act of congress 30 April 1790 and was tried upon the plea of not guilty. A New York Criminal Lawyer said it appeared in evidence that the offence charged in the indictment was committed by the prisoner on 6 November 1816 on board the United States ship of war Independence, rated a ship of the line of seventy-four guns, then in commission, and in the actual service of the United States. At that time, defendant was a marine duly enlisted, and in the service of the United States, and was acting as sentry regularly posted on board of said ship, and the other individual, the deceased named in the indictment, was at the same time duly enlisted and in the service of the United States as cook’s mate on board of the said ship.

At the time of the alleged murder, the ship was lying at anchor in the main channel of Boston harbours in waters of a sufficient depth at all times of tide for ships of the largest class and burden, and to which there is at all times a free and unobstructed passage to the open sea or ocean. To and beyond the position or place, the civil and criminal processes of the courts of the state of Massachusetts, have hitherto constantly been served and obeyed. The prisoner was first apprehended for the offence in the district of Massachusetts.

Thereafter, the jury found defendant guilty of the offence as charged in the indictment.
Defendant then moved for a new trial. Two questions were raised, viz: whether the offense charged in the indictment, and committed on board the said ship, was within the jurisdiction of the state of Massachusetts, or of any court thereof; and whether the offence charged in the indictment, and committed on board the said ship, was within the jurisdiction or cognizance of the circuit court of the United States, for the district of Massachusetts.

The Ruling:

The indictment appears to be founded on the 8th sec. of the act for the punishment of certain criminal acts against the United States. A New York Criminal Lawyer said that section gives the courts of the union cognizance of certain offences committed on the high seas, or in any river, haven, basin, or bay, out of the jurisdiction of any particular state.

Whatever may be the constitutional power of congress, it is clear that this power has not been so exercised, in this section of the act, as to confer on its court jurisdiction over any offence committed in a river, haven, basin or bay; which river, haven, basin, or bay, is within the jurisdiction of any particular state.

As a rule, the jurisdiction of a state is co-extensive with its territory; co-extensive with its legislative power. The place described is unquestionably within the original territory of Massachusetts. It is then within the jurisdiction of Massachusetts, unless that jurisdiction has been ceded by the United States.

Here, it is contended to have been ceded by that article in the constitution which declares, that the judicial power shall extend to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. The argument is, that the power thus granted is exclusive; and that the murder committed by the prisoner is a case of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. A New York Drug Possession Lawyer said assuming arguendo, it proves the power of congress to legislate in the case; not that congress has exercised that power. It has been argued, and the argument in a favor of, as well as that against the proposition deserves great consideration, that courts of common law have concurrent jurisdiction with courts of admiralty, over murder committed in bays, which are in closed parts of the sea; and that for this reason the offence is within the jurisdiction of Massachusetts. However, in construing the act of congress, the court believes it to be unnecessary to pursue the investigation which has been so well made in the case at bar respecting the jurisdiction of these rival courts.

Thus, to bring the offense within the jurisdiction of the courts of the union, it must have been committed in a river, out of the jurisdiction of any state. It is not the offence committed, but the bay in which it is committed, which must be out of the jurisdiction of the state. If, then, it should be true that Massachusetts can take no cognizance of the offence; yet, unless the place itself be out of her jurisdiction, congress has not given cognizance of that offence to its courts. If there be a common jurisdiction, the crime or felony cannot be punished in the courts of the union.

The question now is if the cession of all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction can be construed into a cession of the waters on which those cases may arise. This is a question on which the court is incapable of feeling a doubt. A New York Sex Crimes Lawyer said the article which describes the judicial power of the United States is not intended for the cession of territory or of general jurisdiction. It is obviously designed for other purposes. It is in the 8th section of the article, we are to look for cessions of territory and of exclusive jurisdiction. Congress has the power to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over this district, and over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the state in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dock yards, and other needful buildings.

Under the rules, the power of exclusive legislation, which is jurisdiction, is united with cession of territory, which is to be the free act of the states. It is difficult to compare the two sections together, without feeling a conviction, not to be strengthened by any commentary on them, that, in describing the judicial power, the framers of our constitution had not in view any cession of territory, or, which is essentially the same, of general jurisdiction. Congress may pass all laws which are necessary and proper for giving the most complete effect to this power. Still, the general jurisdiction over the place, subject to this grant of power, adheres to the territory, as a portion of sovereignty not yet given away. The residuary powers of legislation are still in Massachusetts.

Although the bay on which this murder was committed might not be out of the jurisdiction of Massachusetts, the ship of war on the deck of which it was committed is a place within the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States whose courts may consequently take cognizance of the offence. That a government which possesses the broad power of war; which may provide and maintain a navy; which may make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces, has power to punish an offence committed by a marine on board a ship of war, wherever that ship may lie, is a proposition never to be questioned in the court. The inquiry respects, not the extent of the power of Congress, but the extent to which that power has been exercised.

Moreover, the objects with which the word place is associated are all in their nature fixed and territorial. A fort, an arsenal, a dock-yard, and a magazine are all of this character. When the sentence proceeds with the words “or in any other place or district of country under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States”, the construction seems irresistible that, by the words “other place” was intended another place of a similar character with those previously enumerated, and with that which follows. Congress might have omitted, in its enumeration, some similar place within its exclusive jurisdiction which was not comprehended by any of the terms employed to which some other name might be given; and, therefore, the words “other place,” or “district of country,” were added; but the context shows the mind of the legislature to have been fixed on territorial objects of a similar character. This construction is strengthened by the fact that at the time of passing the subject law, the United States did not possess a single ship of war. Thus, it may be reasonably assumed that a provision for the punishment of crimes in the navy might be postponed until some provision for a navy should be made. While taking such view of the subject, it is not entirely unworthy of remark, that afterwards, when a navy was created, and congress did not proceed to make rules for its regulation and government, no jurisdiction is given to the courts of the United States, of any crime or felony committed in a ship of war, wherever it may be stationed.

In conclusion, a murder committed on board a ship of war, lying within the harbour of Boston, is not cognizable in the circuit court for the district of Massachusetts.

For the best legal professionals in the country, contact us at Stephen Bilkis & Associates. Consult with our Suffolk County Criminal Attorneys like our Suffolk County Arrest Lawyers or our Suffolk County Assault Lawyers, and the like. Call us and know your rights. Learn how you can protect or enforce them before courts of law.

Contact Information