Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jin Fuey Moy in the Supreme Court

In a previous post (here), we outlined the background of the case against Jin Fuey Moy, who was convicted of 8 counts of violating of the Act to Provide for the Registration of, with Collectors of Internal Revenue, and to Impose a Special Tax Upon, All Persons Who Produce, Import, Manufacture, Compound, Deal in, Dispense, Sell, Distribute, or Give Away Opium or Cocoa Leaves, Their Salts, Derivatives, or Preparations, and for Other Purposes. The prosecution also went after one of Dr. Moy's patients, an addict named Willie Martin.

On December 12, 1915, the case was argued before the United States Supreme Court and a decision was handed down on June 5, 1916 - United States v. Jin Fuey Moy 241 U.S. 394 (1916). The Court overturned the conviction of Willie Martin in a 7-2 vote. The fairly brief majority opinion was written by Justice Holmes.

Holmes and four other justices concluded that the federal law's concern over "any person" that was not "registered" was not meant to mean "all persons" in the United States who possessed "Opium or Cocoa Leaves, Their Salts, Derivatives, or Preparations." Instead, as the clear title of the Act suggests, the concern was for persons who "Produce, Import, Manufacture, Compound, Deal in, Dispense, Sell, Distribute, or Give Away" such materials. It was clearly that more narrow class of persons whom the Act required to register and pay a tax. Consequently, it was not the intent of Congress to brand "the probably very large proportion of citizens who [had] some preparation of opium in their possession" as "criminal."

A large number of prosecutions were "held up" in anticipation of the Court's decision. And it was roundly criticized for rendering the law "ineffective." The Secretary for the Treasury complained that the Court's decision made enforcement of the Harrison Narcotics Act "more difficult" and "handicapped" those who were working to suppress "the drug evil" in this country.  A Report to the Commissioner for Internal Revenue felt the decision made it "practically impossible" to control "illicit drug traffic." But, for many, an obvious - and more pertinent - question followed: What about persons, both in and out of the Nation's prisons, already convicted?

Coming Next: The President Responds

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