Coffin v. U.S., 156 U.S. 432 (1895)

Commentary by Jon Roland

The decision and opinion in this case are both correct, so far as they go, but are too narrow. That fact is that Congress had and has no authority to impose criminal penalties for the act committed, and that section 5209 of the Revised Statutes was and is unconstitutional. It would have such authority only if the act occurred on territory ceded to the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress by an act of the Indiana Legislature under Art. I Sec. 8 Cl. 17 of the U.S. Constitution, and no such act was adopted by the Indiana Legislature for the parcel of land on which the acts were alleged to have occurred. Nor was or is there any authority for the government of the United States to charter a bank to operate on other than federal enclaves created under Art. I Sec. 8 Cl. 17 of the U.S. Constitution, and if a state should allow it to operate on its territory, it would be governed by the laws of that state and not by the laws of the United States.

Under the U.S. Constitution, there are only three kinds of criminal jurisdiction: territorial, subject, and personal. The national Congress has general territorial criminal jurisdiction only over the territory of federal enclaves created under Art. I Sec. 8 Cl. 17. It has subject jurisdiction only over (1) treason (Art. III Sec. 3 Cl. 2), (2) counterfeiting (Art. I Sec. 8 Cl. 6), (3) piracy and felonies on the high seas (Art. I Sec. 8 Cl. 10), (4) offences against the laws of nations (Art. I Sec. 8 Cl. 10), (5) enslavement (Amd. 13), (6) importation of alcohol into state where prohibited (Amd. 21), and (7) denial of the right to vote on the basis of race, color, or previous servitude (Amd. 15), sex (Amd. 19), failure to pay a tax (Amd. 24), or age (Amd. 26). The only subjects of personal jurisdiction are military personnel and militia personnel when in actual federal service (Art. I Sec. 8 Cl. 16).

Since the alleged offenses did not occur on a federal enclave, the only way the national government could have criminal jurisdiction would be if the officials or employees of the national bank were military or militia personnel in actual federal service, which they were not. A government does not acquire criminal jurisdiction over the agents of a corporation by chartering or regulating it.

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