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Little v. Barreme - 6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 170 (1804)

Rule:

Instructions given by the President of the United States under the construction an act of Congress cannot change the nature of the transaction, or legalize an act, which without those instructions would have been a plain trespass.

Facts:

The Flying-Fish, a Danish vessel having on board Danish and neutral property, was captured on a voyage from Jeremie to St. Thomas’s, by the United States frigate Boston, commanded by Captain Little. The captain believed that the vessel was of American origin and in violation of the non-intercourse law with France by attempting to travel to a jurisdiction under the authority of the French republic. The captain had instructions from the President to stop suspected American vessels from travelling to a French jurisdiction. However, it was determined that the vessel was not American and was on a voyage from, not to a French port. Thereafter, the officers and crew of the captured vessel sought damages for the capture and detention, which the district court refused to grant. According to the district court, there was probable cause to suspect the vessel to be American. The appellate court reversed the district court’s decision as to damages, holding that even if the vessel had been American, it should not have been captured because it was on a voyage from a French port.

Issue:

Under the circumstances of the case at hand, was the award of damages proper?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court affirmed the judgment below. A commander of a ship of war of the United States, in obeying his instructions from the President of the United States, would act at his peril. If those instructions were not strictly warranted by law, he was answerable in damages to any person injured by their execution. The Court noted that the act pursuant to which the captain seized the vessel did not authorize the seizure upon the high seas of any vessel sailing from a French port; and orders of the President of the United States could not justify such a seizure. Hence, the Court determined that Captain Little must be answerable in damages to the owner of the vessel.

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