Shevlin-Carpenter Co. v. State of Minn. (1910)

US Criminal Law

Shevlin
‘Fallen Timber’ by Jospeh Laverti

The constitutionality of statute drafted and designed to preserve the interests of a State, coupled with the presumption that such laws are irrelevant to the needs of commerce, provide the basis of a case where those later prosecuted are left arguing that word of mouth is sufficient grounds upon which to acquire property.

Having operated as a timber merchant under State licence, the plaintiff in error corporation found themselves in need of a second licence extension following the recent expiration of their previous reissue, and so instead of applying through the proper channels, chose to rely upon verbal declarations of State officials as to their ability to continue removing trees from government land.

For clarity at the time of the offence, § 7 of the Laws of Minnesota 1895 stated that:

“If any person, firm or corporation, without a valid and existing permit therefor, cuts or employs, or induces any other person, firm or corporation to cut, or assist in cutting any timber of whatsoever description, on state lands, or removes or carries away or employs, or induces or assists any other person, firm or corporation to remove or carry away any such timber, or other property, he shall be liable to the state in treble damages, if such trespass is adjudged to have been willful; but double damages only in case the trespass is adjudged to have been casual and involuntary….”

And so when the plaintiff in error’s activities were discovered, the defendant in error brought charges in the District Court of St. Louis County on grounds of wilful trespass, thus claiming treble damages as prescribed.

Here the court found for the defendant in error and awarded damages of around $44,000, whereupon the plaintiff in error challenged the judgment in the Minnesota Supreme Court, who upheld the judgment, while holding that:

“The Legislature may declare that a willful trespass upon the lands of another shall constitute a criminal offense and fix the limits of punishment therefor, either by fine or imprisonment, or by compensating the injured party in damages to be recovered in a civil action, or by both, as its judgment may dictate.”

After which the plaintiff in error appealed on grounds that it had acted in good faith and reliance upon the statements made by those with apparent authority, while in response the court referred to State v. Shevlin-Carpenter Co., in which it had earlier held that:

“Where the defendant is a willful trespasser, the measure of damages is the full value of the property at the time and place of demand; but, if he is only an unintentional or mistaken trespasser,-that is, where he honestly and reasonably believed that he had a legal right to take the property,-then the measure of damages is the value of the property at the time and place and in the condition it was taken.”

Before partially reversing their previous judgment and remanding the matter back in keeping with a significant reduction in damages, thus the plaintiff in error challenged the decision under writ of error in the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that the statue was violative of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when denying due process, and that as such, no damages were due.

Having reexamined the facts and constitutional argument, along with the right to protect State property through appropriate statute, the Court reasoned that at no point was the questioned legislation hidden from view, nor remotely difficult to understand, while also noting that contrastingly, at no point in history had trespass ever been considered a harmless act.

In closing the Court also noted that despite the harshness of its construction, the State had proscribed the offence within constitutional bounds, and were therefore sound in their enforcement, after which it upheld the previous judgment in full, while holding that:

“[I]nnocence cannot be asserted of an action which violates existing law, and ignorance of the law will not excuse.”

Access to Justice

Insight | March 2017

Access to Justice
Image: ‘Lady Justice’ by Eraclis Aristidou

What exactly is ‘access to justice’, and why do we need to preserve it? To answer that we need to first understand how the phrase came about, and then why it may be in danger of becoming a legal bygone.

‘Access to Justice’ was a phrase used by Lord Woolf in 1996, when attempting to streamline the litigation processes attached to personal injury claims suffered by everyday people in the United Kingdom. Largely based upon the combined incentives of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and part36 (early offers strategies), it was suggested that by expediting claims, there would by default, become a lesser chance of spiralling legal costs, and reluctance of the poor seeking recovery for damages sustained in events beyond their control.

While from a superficial slant this ‘quickening’ of justice appears to embrace those without the means of representation and the legal acumen to work alone, it is now suggested that in fact the contrary has become true. With the collective impact of legal aid cuts, increased court fees and numerous court closures, the resulting options take on a less attractive sheen, in lieu of the growing hesitance to seek legal reparation. This gross misdirection translates as a more cloaked prevention, over the illusion of equitability, and to date there are now many activists campaigning for a dramatic change in policy.

As was discussed in my own academic paper, the dangers inherent to early offers far outweigh the genuine reward for pursuance of authentic remedy, but unless fiscally challenged claimants are determined enough to transcend the aggressive manoeuvres of defendant representatives, the odds will by majority, remain stacked against them. This in effect, strangulates the innate purpose of accessible justice, and places far greater value upon the currency of industry; therefore while far from helping the weak, it runs a calculable risk of leaving them powerless and unable to fight back.

Legal Aid

In a report published in October 2016, Amnesty International summarised that three key groups were directly affected by arbitrary cuts to legal aid support, namely (i) the vulnerable, (ii) the transitory and (iii) the disabled. And while taking great strides to illustrate the far-reaching consequences of such inconsiderate narrowness, the message was quite simply that:

“Amnesty International is therefore calling on the UK government to urgently fulfil its promise to review the impact of the cuts and take steps to ensure the right of the most disadvantaged sectors of society to access justice is adequately protected.”

 Writing as a father of a special needs child, the first and third groups possess immediate implications for families similar to my own, who for one reason or another, might find themselves facing legal action, whether through public body frustrations, or simple damages-based incidents. Yet knowing that in the first instance there is no legal counsel, and no validation of a right to claim without parallel concerns of costs, there remains only the stark realisation that the price of justice now relies upon the roll of a loaded dice.

Legal Costs

Interestingly, while this area of discussion might prove hard to quantify with any  degree of exactness, the Legal Ombudsmen publication ‘Ten Questions to ask your Lawyer about Costs‘, proves instantly invaluable when evaluating the merits of private law claims.  More notably, recent changes to the fixed fees threshold within litigation, has to some extent, appeased the fears of those predominantly affected by previous reforms; yet the issue remains that claimants subject to a deprivation of counsel (pro-bono or otherwise), might still think twice before filling out their CNF forms. This is a frank but cautious sentiment echoed by Jonathan Smithers of The Law Society, who remarked:

“A single approach for all cases, regardless of complexity, will lead to many cases being economically unviable to pursue which undermines the principle of justice delivering fairness for all.”

However, when all is said and done, it is unlikely that both the practice industry and public interest will ever read from the same page, but that should never encourage the marginalisation of legal support in a world that is only becoming more crowded and prone to collisions of priority.

The Courts

While there is understandable anger at the gradient closure of almost 90 courts across the country, the promise of a heavily invested tech and user-friendly system, could prove the one positive in this tempering of justice, and so it would be remiss to level accusations of deliberate prevention, when the suggestion of ‘pop-up’ courts is peddled through various forms of digital media.

There is however, cause for concern when terms such as ‘makeshift’ and ‘public houses’ are used in the same context as the ‘fair’ and ‘reasoned’ dispensation of justice, within  an (albeit shrinking) framework of purpose built environments, before calm and attentive audiences. In fact, one might go so far as suggest that legal discourse is becoming diluted, by virtue of the fact that ‘quickie’ courts will themselves, overlook the precision of judicial application in favour of higher case turnover. Contrastingly, the option to pursue legal ends through online portals would seem to proffer greater structure, less chance for media intrusion and a significant cost saving, as was shown during Gary Linker’s recent divorce.

In closing, the point in greatest need of clarification, is that the true meaning of ‘access to justice’ is not one of quick fixes to complex problems. Rather it is about an equal right to a domestic jurisprudence generations in the making. By weakening the fabric of reparation in favour of mass appeasement, the English judicial system will only prove itself counter-productive and rushed; and so it is crucial that any consideration for public interest, and those employed to serve them, must be delicately balanced, rather than a mere continuance of treating every legal problem like a nail.