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United States v. Kirby - 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 482 (1869)

Rule:

All laws should receive a sensible construction. General terms should be so limited in their application as not to lead to injustice, oppression, or an absurd consequence. It will always, therefore, be presumed that the legislature intended exceptions to its language. 

Facts:

The Circuit Court for the District of Kentucky sent the following questions to the Court upon a certificate of division: (1) was the arrest of a mail carrier upon a bench warrant for murder an obstruction of the mail and (2) did the arrest obstruct or retard the passage of a mail carrier within the meaning of 4 Stat. 104?

Issue:

Was the arrest of a mail carrier upon a bench warrant for murder an obstruction of the mail?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

Holding that the federal law was not violated, the Court answered the certified questions in the negative. The Court noted that the governing statute made no reference to acts that obstructed or retarded the passage of the mail that were lawful in themselves and that unavoidably caused a temporary delay to the mails. The Court acknowledged that all persons in the public service were exempt as a matter of public policy from arrest upon civil process while engaged in their duties. The Court held, however, that the rule was different when the process was issued upon a charge of felony. The Court concluded that the public inconvenience, which occasionally followed from the temporary delay in the transmission of the mail caused by the arrest of its carriers upon such charges, was far less than would arise from extending to them immunity from arrest. Expressing doubt that Congress could exempt the employees of the United States from arrest on criminal process from state courts for crimes not merely mala prohibita but mala in se, the Court held that whether such an exemption was constitutional or not, no intention to extend such an exemption should be attributed to Congress unless clearly manifested in the language of the statute.

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