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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Wiltberger, 18 U.S. 5 Wheat. 76 76 (1820)

United States v. Wiltberger

18 U.S. (5 Wheat.) 76


The courts of the United States have no jurisdiction, under the Act of April 30, 1790, c., 36, of the crime of manslaughter, committed by the master upon one of the seamen on board a merchant vessel of the United States, lying in the River Tigris, in the empire of China, thirty-five miles above its in off Wampoa, about one hundred yards from the shore, in four and a half fathoms water, and below low water mark.

Rules for the construction of penal statutes.

Though penal laws are to be construed strictly, yet the intention of the legislature must govern in the construction of penal as well as other statutes, and they are not to be construed so strictly as to defeat the obvious intention of the legislature.

In the Act of April 30, 1790, c. 36, the description of places contained in the eighth section, within which the offenses therein enumerated must be committed in order to give the courts of the Union jurisdiction over them cannot be transferred to the twelfth section so as to give those courts jurisdiction over a manslaughter committed in the river of a foreign country, and not on the high seas.

This was an indictment for manslaughter in the Circuit Court of Pennsylvania. The jury found the defendant guilty of the offense with which he chanrobles.com-red

Page 18 U. S. 77

stood indicted, subject to the opinion of the court whether this Court has jurisdiction of the case, which was as follows:

The manslaughter charged in the indictment was committed by the defendant, on board of the American ship the Benjamin Rush on a seaman belonging to the said ship, whereof the defendant was master, in the River Tigris, in the empire of China, off Wampoa, and about 100 yards from the shore, in four and a half fathoms water, and below the low water mark, thirty-five miles above the mouth of the river. The water at the said place where the offense was committed is fresh, except in very dry seasons, and the tide ebbs and flows at and above the said place. At the mouth of the Tigris, the government of China has forts on each side of the river, where custom house officers are taken in by foreign vessels to prevent smuggling. The river at the mouth and at Wampoa is about half a mile in breadth.

And thereupon, the opinions of the judges of the circuit court, being opposed as to the jurisdiction of the court, the question was by them stated, and directed to be certified to this Court. chanrobles.com-red

Page 18 U. S. 93


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