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[235 U.S. 133, 134] Solicitor General Davis for plaintiff in error.
[235 U.S. 133, 135] Mr. William L. Martin and Mr. Robert C. Brickell, Attorney General of Alabama, for defendants in error.
Mr. Justice Day delivered the opinion of the court:
These cases were argued and considered together, and may be disposed of in a single opinion. They come here under the criminal appeals act of March 2, 1907 (34 Stat. at L. 1246, chap. 2564) as involving the construction of the statutes of the United States which have for their object the prohibition and punishment of peonage. Case No. 478, United States v. Reynolds, was decided upon demurrer and objections to a plea filed to the indictment. The case
Comp. St. 1913, 1704. [235 U.S. 133, 139] against Broughton, No. 479, was decided upon demurrer to the indictment. In both cases the district court held that no offense was charged. 213 Fed. 345, 352. Both indictments for holding certain persons in a state of peonage were found under 1990 of the Revised Statutes of the United States (U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 1266), as follows:
The facts to be gathered from the indictments and pleas, upon which the court below decided the cases and determined that no offense was charged against the statutes of the United States as above set forth, are substantially these: In No. 478, one Ed Rivers, having been convicted in a court of Alabama of the offense of petit larceny, was fined $15, and costs , $43.75. The defendant Reynolds appeared as surety for Rivers, and a judgment by confession was entered up against him for the amount of the fine and costs, which Reynolds afterwards paid to the state. On May 4, 1910, Rivers, the convict, entered into a written contract with Reynolds to work for him as a [235 U.S. 133, 140] farmhand for the term of nine months and twenty-four days, at the rate of $ 6 per month, to pay the amount of fine and costs. The indictment charges that he entered into the service of Reynolds, and under threats of arrest and imprisonment if he ceased to perform such work and labor, he worked until the 6th day of June, when he refused to labor. Thereupon he was arrested upon a warrant issued at the instance of Reynolds from the county court of Alabama, on the charge of violating the contract of service. He was convicted and fined the sum of 1 cent for violating this contract, and additional costs in the amount of $87.05, for which he again confessed judgment with G. W. Broughton as surety, and entered into a similar contract with Broughton to work for him as a farm hand at the same rate, for a term of fourteen months and fifteen days.
In No. 479, the case against Broughton, E. W. Fields, having been convicted in an Alabama state court, at the July, 1910, term, of the offense of selling mortgaged property, was fined $50 and costs in the additional sum of $69.70. Thereupon Broughton, as surety for Fields, confessed judgment for the sum of fine and costs, and afterwards paid the same to the state. On the 8th day of July, 1910, a contract was entered into, by which Fields agreed to work for Broughton as a farm and logging hand for the term of nineteen months and twenty-nine days, at the rate of $ 6 per month, to pay the fine and costs. He entered into the service of Broughton, and, it was alleged, under threats of arrest and imprisonment if he ceased to labor, he continued so to do until the 14th day of September, 1910, when he refused to labor further. Thereupon Broughton caused the arrest of Fields upon a charge of violating his contract, and upon a warrant issued upon this charge, Fields was again arrested.
The rulings in the court below upon the plea and demurrers were that there was no violation of the Federal [235 U.S. 133, 141] statutes, properly construed, and also held that the conduct of the defendants was justified by the provisions of the Alabama Code, upon which they relied. These provisions are as follows:
The defendants having justified under this system of law, the question for consideration is, Were the defendants well charged with violating the provisions of the Federal statutes, to which we have referred, notwithstanding they undertook to act under the Alabama laws, particularly under the provisions of 6846 of the Alabama Code, authorizing sureties to appear and confess judgment and enter into contracts such as those we have described?
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides:
It was under the authority herein conferred, to enforce the provisions of this amendment by appropriate legislation, that Congress passed the sections of the Revised Statutes here under consideration. Clyatt v. United States, 197 U.S. 207 , 49 L. ed. 726, 25 Sup. Ct. Rep. 429; Bailey v. Alabama, 219 U.S. 219 , 55 L. ed. 191, 31 Sup. St. Rep. 145.
By these enactments Congress undertook to strike down all laws, regulations, and usages in the states and territories which attempted to maintain and enforce, directly or indirectly, the voluntary or involuntary service or labor of any persons as peons, in the liquidation of any debt or obligation. To determine whether the conduct of the defendants charged in the indictments amounted to holding the persons named in a state of peonage, it is essential to understand what Congress meant in the use of that term prohibiting and punishing those guilty of maintaining it. Extended discussion of this subject is rendered unnecessary in view of the full consideration thereof in the prior adjudications of this [235 U.S. 133, 144] court. Clyatt v. United States and Bailey v. Alabama, supra.
Peonage is a 'condition of compulsory service, based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master. The basal fact is indebtedness . . . . 'One fact existed universally; all were indebted to their masters . . . .' Upon this is based a condition of compulsory service. Peonage is sometimes classified as voluntary or involuntary, but this implies simply a difference in the mode of origin, but none in the character of the servitude. The one exists where the debtor voluntarily contracts to enter the service of his creditor. The other is forced upon the debtor by some provision of law. But peonage, however created, is compulsory service, involuntary servitude. The peon can release himself therefrom, it is true, by the payment of the debt, but otherwise the service is enforced. A clear distinction exists between peonage and the voluntary performance of labor or rendering of services in payment of a debt. In the latter case, the debtor, though contracting to pay his indebtedness by labor or service, and subject like any other contractor to an action for damages for breach of that contract, can elect at any time to break it, and no law or force compels performance or a continuance of the service.' Clyatt v. United States, supra.
Applying this definition to the facts here shown, we must determine whether the convict was in reality working for a debt which he owed the surety, and whether the labor was performed under such coercion as to become a compulsory service for the discharge of a debt. If so, it amounts to peonage, within the prohibition of the Federal statutes. The actual situation is this: The convict, instead of being committed to work and labor as the statute provides for the state, when his fines and costs are unpaid, comes into court with a surety, and confesses judgment in the amount of fine and costs, and agrees [235 U.S. 133, 145] with the surety, in consideration of the payment of that fine and costs, to perform service for the surety after he is released because of the confession of judgment. The form of the contract, said to be the usual one entered into in such cases, in given in the record, and reads:
The state of Alabama, Monroe county:
Whereas, at the May term, 1910, of the county court, held in and for said county, I, Ed. Rivers, was convicted in said court of the offense of petit larceny and fined the sum of $15, and judgment has been rendered against me for the amount of said fine, and also in the further and additional sum of forty-three and 75/100 dollars, cost in said case, and whereas J. A. Reynolds, together with A. C. Hixon, have confessed judgment with me in said court for said fine and costs. Now, in consideration of the premises, I, the said Ed. Rivers, agree to work and labor for him, the said J. A. Reynolds, on his plantation in Monroe county, Alabama, and under his direction as a farm hand to pay fine and costs for the term nine months and twenty-four days, at the rate of $6 per month, together with my board, lodging, and clothing during the said time of hire, said time of hire commencing on the 4 day of May, 1910, and ending on the 28 day of Feby., 1911, provided said work is not dangerous in its character.
Witness our hands this 4 day of May, 1910
Ed (his x mark) Rivers.
J. A. Reynolds.
John M. Coxwell.
It also stands admitted in this record that the sureties in fact paid the judgment confessed. Looking, then, to the substance of things, and through the mere form which they have taken, we are to decide the question whether the labor of the convict, thus contracted for, amounted to [235 U.S. 133, 146] involuntary service for the liquidation of a debt to the surety, which character of service it was the intention of the acts of Congress to prevent and punish. When thus at labor, the convict is working under a contract which he has made with his surety. He is to work until the amount which the surety has paid for him-the sum of the fine and costs-is paid. The surety has paid the state and the service is rendered to reimburse him. This is the real substance of the transaction. The terms of that contract are agreed upon by the contracting parties, as the result of their own negotiations. The statute of the state does not prescribe them. It leaves the making of contract to the parties concerned, and this fact is not changed because of the requirement that the judge shall approve of the contract. When the convict goes to work under this agreement, he is under the direction and control of the surety, and is in fact working for him. If he keeps his agreement with the surety, he is discharged from its obligations without any further action by the state. This labor is performed under the constant coercion and threat of another possible arrest and prosecution in case he violates the labor contract which he has made with the surety, and this form of coercion is as potent as it would have been had the law provided for the seizure and compulsory service of the convict. Compulsion of such service by the constant fear of imprisonment under the criminal laws renders the work compulsory, as much so as authority to arrest and hold his person would be if the law authorized that to be done. Bailey v. Alabama, 219 U.S. 244 , 55 L. ed. 202, 31 Sup. Ct. Rep. 145; Ex parte Hollman, 79 S. C. 9, 21 L.R.A.(N.S.) 242, 60 S. E. 24, 14 Ann. Cas. 1105.
Under this statute, the surety may cause the arrest of the convict for violation of his labor contract. He may be sentenced and punished for this new offense, and undertake to liquidate the penalty by a new contract of a similar nature, and, if again broken, may be again prosecuted, and the convict is thus kept chained to an ever- [235 U.S. 133, 147] turning wheel of servitude to discharge the obligation which he has incurred to his surety, who has entered into an undertaking with the state, or paid money in his behalf. The rearrest of which we have spoken is not because of his failure to pay his fine and costs originally assessed against him by the state. He is arrested at the instance of the surety, and because the law punishes the violation of the contract which the convict has made with him.
Nor is the labor for the surety by any means tantamount to that which the state imposes if no such contract has been entered into, as these cases afford adequate illustration. In the case against Reynolds, Rivers was sentenced to pay $15 fine and $43.75 costs. Under the Alabama Code, he might have been sentenced to hard labor for the county for ten days for the nonpayment of the fine, and assuming that he could be sentenced for nonpayment of costs under 7635 of the Alabama Code, he could have worked it out at the rate of 75 cents per day, an additional fifty-eight days might have been added, making sixty-eight days as his maximum sentence at hard labor. Under the contract now before us, he was required to labor for nine months and twenty-four days, thus being required to perform a much more onerous service than if he had been sentenced under the statute, and committed to hard labor. Failing to perform the service, he may be again rearrested, as he was in fact in this case, and another judgment confessed to pay a fine of 1 cent and $87.05 costs, for which the convict was bound to work for another surety for the term of fourteen months and seventeen days. In the case against Broughton, Fields was fined $50 and $69.70 costs. Under the law he might have been condemned to hard labor for less than four months. By the contract described, he was required to work for Broughton for a period of nineteen months and twenty-nine days.
We are cited to a series of Alabama cases, in which it is [235 U.S. 133, 148] held that the confessed judgment and the contract do not satisfy the law nor pay the penalty imposed, but the hirer becomes the transferee of the right of the state to compel the payment of the fine and costs, and by this exaction of involuntary servitude the convict has only changed masters, and that under the Alabama Constitution the law is constitutional, and that the convict is not being imprisoned for indebtedness. It is to be observed that the same learned court, in one of its later deliverances ( State v. Etowah Lumber Co. 153 Ala. 77, 78, 45 So. 162), has said, in speaking of this contract, 'the state was in no sense a party to the contract by which the company acquired the custody of Falkner [the convict in that case]. It is true it [the state] permitted the making of the contract, and provides a punishment for its breach.' Here is a direct utterance of that court that the state was not a party to the surety's agreement, but its connection with it was to permit it, and provide the punishment for its breach.
True it is that this court follows the decisions of the state courts, in determining the constitutionality of its statutes under the Constitutions of the states; and in considering the constitutionality of statutes ordinarily accepts their meaning as construed by the state courts. The Alabama decisions, to which we have been referred, are, more strictly speaking, determinations of the legal effect of these statutes than interpretation of any doubtful meaning which may be found within their terms. Moreover, we are here dealing with a case which involves the Constitution and statutes of the United States, as to which this court, by force of the Constitution, and the several judiciary acts which have been enacted by Congress, is the ultimate arbiter. In such cases this court must determine for itself whether a given enactment violates the Constitution of the United States or the statutes passed in pursuance thereof. The validity of this system of state law must be judged by its operation and effect upon rights [235 U.S. 133, 149] secured by the Constitution of the United States and offenses punished by the Federal statutes. If such state statutes, upon their face, or in the manner of their administration, have the effect to deny rights secured by the Federal Constitution, or to nullify statutes passed in pursuance thereto, they must fail. Bailey v. Alabama, supra; Henderson v. New York ( Henderson v. Wickham) 92 U.S. 268 , 23 L. ed. 547.
Nor do we think this case is controlled by Freeman v. United States, 217 U.S. 539 , 54 L. ed. 874, 30 Sup. Ct. Rep. 592, 19 Ann. Cas. 755, cited by counsel for defendants in error. In that case it was held that a money penalty imposed for embezzlement which went to the creditor, and not into the Treasury, under the Penal Code of the Philippine Islands, did not make imprisonment for the nonpayment of such penalty equivalent to imprisonment for debt. In that case, although the penalty affixed went to the creditor, it was part of the sentence imposed by the law as a punishment for the crime. In the present case, the contract under which the convict serves for the surety is made between the parties concerned, who determine and fix its terms, and is not fixed by the state as the punishment for the commission of an offense.
There can be no doubt that the state has authority to impose involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime. This fact is recognized in the 13th Amendment, and such punishment expressly excepted from its terms. Of course, the state may impose fines and penalties which must be worked out for the benefit of the state, and in such manner as the state may legitimately prescribe. See Clyatt v. United States, 197 U.S. 207 , 49 L. ed. 726, 25 Sup. Ct. Rep. 429, and Bailey v. Alabama, 219 U.S. 219 , 55 L. ed. 191, 31 Sup. Ct. Rep. 145. But here the state has taken the obligation of another for the fine and costs, imposed upon one convicted for the violation of the laws of the state. It has accepted the obligation of the surety, and, in the present case, it is recited in the record that the money has been if fact paid by the surety. The surety and convict have made a new contract for service, in regard to the terms of which the [235 U.S. 133, 150] state has not been consulted. The convict must work it out to satisfy the surety for whom he has contracted to work. This contract must be kept, under pain of rearrest, and another similar proceeding for its violation, and perhaps another and another. Thus, under pain of recurring prosecutions, the convict may be kept at labor, to satisfy the demands of his employer.
In our opinion, this system is in violation of rights intended to be secured by the 13th Amendment, as well as in violation of the statutes to which we have referred, which the Congress has enacted for the purpose of making that Amendment effective.
It follows that the judgment of the District Court must be reversed. Judgment accordingly.
Mr. Justice McReynolds took no part in the consideration and decision of this case.
Mr. Justice Holmes, concurring:
There seems to me nothing in the 13th Amendment or the Revised Statutes that prevents a state from making a breach of contract, as well a reasonable contract for labor as for other matters, a crime and punishing it as such. But impulsive people with little intelligence or foresight may be expected to lay hold of anything that affords a relief from present pain, even though it will cause greater trouble by and by. The successive contracts, each for a longer term than the last, are the inevitable, and must be taken to have been the contemplated, outcome of the Alabama laws. On this ground I am inclined to agree that the statutes in question disclosed the attempt to maintain service that the Revised Statutes forbid.
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Citation: 235 U.S. 133
Docket No: No. 478
Argued: October 23, 1914
Decided: November 30, 1914
Court: United States Supreme Court
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