Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616 (1886)

An agent of the customs department, referred to as a collector, seized thirty-five cases of plate glass in pursuance of customs law. The importer was accused of attempting to defraud the federal government of the revenues and duties normally imposed upon the goods. During the trial that followed, the government sought to obtain records of similar prior importations, specifically the receipt by the importer of twenty- nine cases of similar plate glass. A court ordered the importer to produce the invoice in question in court for governmental inspection. The production of the invoice was governed by an 1874 law (18 St. 186) that allowed the government to inspect, but not take possession of, documents of the sort requested. The 1874 legislation was enacted to revise similar past statutes (12 St. 737 and 14 St. 547), which were constitutionally objectionable; the legislation skirted constitutional questions by allowing judges to compel the production of documents without physical search or seizure. A party who refused to produce requested documents was considered guilty of the offenses that the documents may have proved.

The defense produced the requested invoice under heavy protest of Fourth and Fifth Amendment violations; they again protested during the trial when the government offered the invoice into evidence. After the trial, Boyd and unnamed companion claimants sued the government on the grounds that the statute which compelled the production of documents from the claimants was unconstitutional. They claimed that the mandatory production of documents before the court under risk of penalty constituted an illegal search. Although no government agent searched or seized evidence, the production order was a functional equivalent of such a search. Further, assuming the guilt of a party who refused to produce requested documents before the court violated the Fifth Amendment’s provision prohibiting self-incrimination.

In a lengthy legislative history reaching back to eighteenth-century British jurisprudence, Justice Bradley agrees with Boyd. He finds a strong connection between the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, writing that ‘‘they throw great light upon each other. For the ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’ condemned in the Fourth Amendment are almost always made for the purpose of compelling a man to give evidence against himself, which in criminal cases is condemned in the Fifth Amendment.’’ Justice Bradley acknowledges that this breach of rights is not the most egregious example, but proposes that the Court operate under the principle of obsta principiis (resist the beginning) and decide this case with an eye toward more obnoxious encroachments. He writes ‘‘though the proceeding in question is divested of many of the aggravating incidents of actual search and seizure . . . it contains their substance and essence.’’

Boyd defines a strong relationship between the Fourth and Fifth Amendments that continues to guide the Court’s deliberations in similar matters. However, the case’s holding was overturned, in part, by Warden, Md. Penitentiary v. Hayden, which recognizes the limitations of the Boyd decision, most notably the production of evidence that does not serve to self-incriminate.

JOHN GREGORY PALMER

References and Further Reading

  • Stephens, Otis, Richard Glenn, and Donald Stephenson, eds. Unreasonable Searches and Seizures: Rights and Liberties under the Law (America’s Freedoms). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • United States of America v. E.A.B., 1–35, Thirty-five Cases of Plate Glass 
  • Act to amend the customs revenue laws, etc., Act of June 22, 1874, 18 St. 186 
  • An act to regulate the disposition of the proceeds of fines, penalties, and forfeitures incurred under the laws relating to the custom, and for other purposes, Act of March 2, 1867, 14 St. 547 
  • An act to prevent and punish frauds upon the revenue, Act of March 3, 1863, 12 St. 737 
  • Warden, Md. Penitentiary v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294 (1967) 

See also Search (General Definition); Search Warrants; Seizures; Warden v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294 (1967)

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