State v. Johnson, 64 N.C. 581 (1870)

June 1870 · Supreme Court of North Carolina
64 N.C. 581


The act of 1868’-9, c. 178, sub-c. iv., giving to Justices of the Peace, power to hear and determine criminal actions for certain petty offen-ces, and among them, “ assaults, and assaults and batteries, where no deadly weapon was used, and no serious damage was done, and where the punishment imposed by law does not exceed fifty dollars fine, or one month’s imprisonment,” — is not unconstitutional.

As that act confines the jurisdiction of the Justice to such offences as are committed within his township, it cannot be exercised in counties where townships have not been laid off.

In such cases, the pleadings must show affirmatively, everything necessary to confer the jurisdiction relied upon therein.

Assault and battery, tried before Jones, J., at Spring Term 1870, of Washington, Court.

The defendant pleaded, Former Conviction ; and, in support thereof, relied upon the fact that he had been tried and convieted for the same offence, by a Magistrate of the county. The plea did not state that the Magistrate who tried him, was a Justice of the Peace in and for the township in which the offence was committed. The case stated that at that time the county had not been laid ofi into townships.

*582His Honor, being of opinion that tbe defence was made ■out, ordered tbe defendant to be discharged. Tbe Solicitor •for tbe State appealed.

Attorney- G-en&ral, for tbe State.

No counsel, contra.

Eodmáít, J.

It is objected to tbe conviction in this case:

1. That tbe act of 1868-’G9, conferring summary jurisdiction over certain petty offences on Justices of tbe Peace, is unconstitutional; 4

2. That tbe Justice did not bave jurisdiction in this case, because tbe offence is not alleged to bave been committed in Ms township.

1. Tbe Constitution, Art. IV, s. 33, provides, “The several Justices of tbe Peace shall bave exclusive original jurisdiction under such regulations as tbe General Assembly shall provide” — “ of all criminal matters arising within their counties, where tbe punishment cannot exceed a fine of fifty dollars, or imprisonment for one month.”

Tbe act of 1868-’69, cb. 178, sub-cb. IV, gives to Justices of tbe Peace, power to bear, try and determine in tbe manner therein prescribed, criminal actions for certain petty offences, and among them, “ assaults, and assaults and batteries, where no deadly weapon was used, and no serious damage was done, and where tbe punishment imposed by law does not exceed fifty dollars fine, or one month’s imprisonment.” Sections 6 and 7, impose some limitations on tbe jurisdiction, which it is not necessary here more than to refer to.

Prior to tbe passage of this act, every assault was punishable by fine and imprisonment, at tbe discretion of tbe Court, and therefore, might be punished beyond tbe jurisdiction o *583a Justice ; and it is argued, that this act does not expressly limit the punishment of any defined class of offences, but does so, if at all, only by implication, and therefore,.not sufficiently. It may he that it would have been a more methodical arrangement, for the Legislature to have defined certain crimes in one statute, devoted to that subject, and to have enacted that the punishment of those coming within such definition, should not exceed the limit, above mentioned; and then, in another statute, devoted to the subject of criminal Courts and their jurisdiction, to have enacted that Justices of the Peace should have jurisdiction of the crimes so defined. But when the intention is clear, a statute cannot fail of effect, merely because perhaps some of its provisions might be put in a more appropriate place. We think the intention sufficiently appears from the statute in question. Sections 4, 6 and 7, separate with sufficient clearness certain assaults from the general class, and give to a Justice jurisdiction over these. The act might have gone on, and said expressly, that “ the punishment of these shall not exceed, &c.” — ; but taking the language of the act, in connection with the Constitution, it seems to us that a plain and necessary implication limits the punishment as clearly as express words could. It must be noted that the act in question, although in one sense it is a penal law, as dealing with penalties, yet, as it mitigates them, it is not a penal law in the sense of requiring to be strictly construed.

What the evil was, which was sought to be remedied by the act, is plain. That the time and attention of the Courts ■of record were unduly occupied in the trial of petty offences, was a complaint long before the abolition of slavery. Whether -or not there was an actual increase of such offences, after that event, there was certainly a vast increase of them cognizable by the Court. Previously, the great majority of such •offences, when committed by slaves, were tried in the do*584mestic form; afterwards, all these were poured into the-Courts, and occupied their time and attention, to the exclusion oí civil actions, so completely that it amounted in many cases to a denial of justice. Now, the determination of' controversies respecting property and civil rights, is just as much due to the people as the trial of persons charged with, crime, and the Courts must do both, to satisfy the people with them and with the government. Nor was the evil of an exclusive jurisdiction in the Superior Courts, less to the offenders, than to the people generally. Often, persons accused of petty crimes were unable to find bail, and were imprisoned before trial much longer than was deemed an adequate punishment after they were found guilty. The expense of the system, was also most burdensome. The slow and costly process of trial by Court and jury, is only required in cases of difficulty or importance. Considerations like these have sufficed in every state and country, to give a summary jurisdiction of petty offences to local officers. In this case the dangers to be guarded against were two:

(1.) The Justice might punish with unmerited severity,., even within the narrow limits of his power. This was provided against by giving to the defendant, the power to appeal ;

(2.) The Justice, through ignorance, or by a corrupt collusion with the offender, might punish the gravest offen-ces with a mere nominal p'enalty, to the scandal of justice, and the detriment, of the public morals; this was provided against, as it is in the English law, by requiring that in every case, the party injured should make the complaint. When he thinks the offence so slight as to demand no punishment greater than what a Justice can inflict, the State may well agree to consider it so; and if he thinks otherwise, the jurisdiction remains with the Superior Court. The act has not been in force long enough to permit an opinion of its effects,, *585from experience, but it seems well adapted to the ends in view, viz: 1. To relieve the Superior Courts of the pressure of petty, business, and give them the time to perform the important duties for which they were more especially created: 2. To relieve the tax-payers from a heavy burden of unnecessary costs: and 3. To give petty offenders a speedy trial, and, (if guilty,) a speedy, but light punishment, in the place oí a long imprisonment on the mere suspicion of guilt.

2. The second objection is more difficult, and indeed we think it fatal to the plea. The plea does not state that the offence of which the Justice took jurisdiction, was committed within his township; and it could not do so, as the case states that the county had not been divided into townships. It is a familiar principle, that when the judgment of an inferior Court, not of general jurisdiction, is pleaded, every thing must be shown necessary to give the Court jurisdiction. The act, sections 6 and 7, expressly confines the final jurisdiction of the Justice to offences committed within his township; it was competent to the Legislature so to confine it, and we cannot extend it. Eor this reason, wé think there was error in the judgment below.

Let this opinion be certified.

Pee, Curiam. Eeversed.