..Mali v. Keeper of the Common Jail of ....Hudson County (Wildenhus Case)

...120 US 1, 7 S.Ct. 385, 30 L.Ed. 565 (1887)

Author's Note: Wildenhus and Fijens were Belgian sailors aboard a Belgian steamship anchored in the port of Jersey City, New Jersey. In a fight below decks, Wildenhus stabbed and killed Fijens. The Jersey City police learned about this incident and arrested Wildenhus. Several Belgian crew members witnessed this incident. They also were placed in the port jail as witnesses for the proceedings against Wildenhus.
.....The treaty between Belgium and the US ceded "primary" jurisdiction over onboard crimes to the respective flag States to which the vessels were registered. A Belgian consular official in New Jersey relied on this treaty and thus sought the release of the Belgian sailors to his custody. This foreign official was acting on behalf of Belgium, referring to himself as the "petitioner." The issue was whether the port tranquility doctrine should be applied to deprive the flag State (Belgium) of its primary jurisdiction under the treaty.
.....The first portion of the reported case is a factual account provided by the lawyers representing the US (on behalf of the prosecution by the state of New Jersey). In the latter portion of this opinion, the Chief Justice then delivered the Supreme Court's decision–agreeing with the lower courts that the treaty permitted New Jersey to prosecute the Belgian sailor under the circumstances. This particular homicide provided cause for invoking the port tranquility exception to Belgian jurisdiction over events occurring aboard its vessel.

Court's Opinion:
.....This appeal brought up an application made to the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of New Jersey, by Charles Mali, the "Consul of His Majesty the King of the Belgians, for the States of New York and New Jersey, in the United States," for himself as such consul, "and in behalf of one Joseph Wildenhus, one Gionviennie Gobnbosich, and one John J. Ostenmeyer," for the release, upon a writ of habeas corpus, of Wildenhus, Gobnbosich, and Ostenmeyer from the custody of the keeper of the common jail of Hudson County, New Jersey, and their delivery to the consul, "to be dealt with according to the law of Belgium." The facts on which the application rested were thus stated in the petition [requested by Belgium].
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.....Second. That on or about the sixth day of October, 1886, on board the Belgian steamship Noordland, there occurred an affray between the said Joseph Wildenhus and one Fijens, wherein and whereby it is charged that the said Wildenhus stabbed with a knife and inflicted upon the said Fijens a mortal wound, of which he afterwards died.
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.....Fifth. That at the time said affray occurred the said steamship Noordland was lying moored at the dock of the port of Jersey City, in said state of New Jersey.
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.....Seventh. That said affray occurred in the presence of several witnesses all of whom were and still are of the crew of the said vessel, and that no other person or persons except those of the crew of said vessel were present or nearby. . . .
.....Article XI of a Convention between the United States and Belgium "concerning the rights, privileges, and immunities of consular officers" . . . is as follows:

..........The respective consuls-general, consuls, vice-consuls, and consular agents shall have exclusive charge of the internal order of the merchant vessels of their nation, and shall alone take cognizance of all differences which may arise, either at sea or in port, between the captains, officers, and crews, without exception, particularly with reference to the adjustment of wages and the execution of contracts. The local authorities shall not interfere, except when the disorder that has arisen is of such a nature as to disturb tranquility and public order on shore, or in the port, or when a person of the country or not belonging to the crew, shall be concerned therein.
..........In all other cases, the aforesaid authorities shall confine themselves to lending aid to the consuls and vice-consuls or consular agents, if they are requested by them to do so, in causing the arrest and imprisonment of any person whose name is inscribed on the crew list, whenever, for any cause, the said officers shall think proper.

.....The claim of the consul was that, by the law of nations and the provisions of this treaty, the offence with which Wildenhus was charged is "solely cognizable by the authority of the laws of the Kingdom of Belgium," and that the State of New Jersey was without jurisdiction in the premises. The Circuit Court refused to deliver the prisoners to the consul and remanded them to the custody of the jailer. To reverse that decision this appeal was taken.

.....[Chief Justice Waite orally restated these facts and then delivered the basic opinion of the Court as follows:]

. . . [T]he courts of the United States have power to issue writs of habeas corpus which shall extend to prisoners in jail when they are in "custody in violation of the Constitution or a law or treaty of the United States," and the question we have to consider is, whether these prisoners are held in violation of the provisions of the existing treaty between the United States and Belgium.
.....It is part of the law of civilized nations that when a merchant vessel of one country enters the ports of another for the purposes of trade, it subjects itself to the law of the place to which it goes, unless by treaty or otherwise the two countries have come to some different understanding or agreement; for, as was said by Chief Justice Marshall in The Exchange [case], "it would be obviously inconvenient and dangerous to society, and would subject the laws to continual infraction, and the government to degradation, if such . . . merchants did not owe temporary and local allegiance, and were not amenable to the jurisdiction of the country." And the English judges have uniformly recognized the rights of the courts of the country of which the port is part to punish crimes committed by one foreigner on another in a foreign merchant ship. As the owner has voluntarily taken his vessel for his own private purposes to a place within the dominion of a government other than his own, and from which he seeks protection during his stay, he owes that government such allegiance for the time being as is due for the protection to which he becomes entitled.
.....From experience, however, it was found long ago that it would be beneficial to commerce if the local government would abstain from interfering with the internal discipline of the ship, and the general regulation of the rights and duties of the officers and crew towards the vessel or among themselves. And so by comity it came to be generally understood among civilized nations that all matters of discipline and all things done on board which affected only the vessel or those belonging to her, and did not involve the peace or dignity of the country, or the tranquility of the port, should be left by the local government to be dealt with by the authorities of the nation to which the vessel belonged as the laws of that nation or the interests of its commerce should require. But if crimes are committed on board of a character to disturb the peace and tranquility of the country to which the vessel has been brought, the offenders have never by comity or usage been entitled to any exemption from the operation of the local laws for their punishment, if the local tribunals see fit to assert their authority. Such being the general public law on this subject, treaties and conventions have been entered into by nations having commercial intercourse, the purpose of which was to settle and define the rights and duties of the contracting parties with respect to each other in these particulars, and thus prevent the inconvenience that might arise from attempts to exercise conflicting jurisdictions.
.....Next came a form of convention which in terms gave the consuls authority to cause proper order to be maintained on board and to decide disputes between the officers and crew, but allowed the local authorities to interfere if the disorders taking place on board were of such a nature as to disturb the public tranquility, and that is substantially all there is in the convention with Belgium which we have now to consider. This treaty is the law which now governs the conduct of the United States and Belgium towards each other in this particular. Each nation has granted to the other such local jurisdiction within its own dominion as may be necessary to maintain order on board a merchant vessel, but has reserved to itself the right to interfere if the disorder on board is of a nature to disturb the public tranquility. 
.....The treaty is part of the supreme law of the United States, and has the same force and effect in New Jersey that it is entitled to elsewhere. If it gives the consul of Belgium exclusive jurisdiction over the offence which it is alleged has been committed within the territory of New Jersey, we see no reason why he may not enforce his rights under the treaty by writ of habeas corpus in any proper court of the United States. This being the case, the only important question left for our determination is whether the thing which has been done--the disorder that has arisen--on board this vessel is of a nature to disturb the public peace, or, as some writers term it, the "public repose" of the people who look to the state of New Jersey for their protection. If the thing done--"the disorder," as it is called in the treaty--is of a character to affect those on shore or in the port when it becomes known, the fact that only those on the ship saw it when it was done is a matter of no moment. Those who are not on the vessel pay no special attention to the mere disputes or quarrels of the seamen while on board, whether they occur under deck or above. Neither do they as a rule care for anything done on board which relates only to the discipline of the ship, or to the preservation of order and authority. Not so, however, with crimes which from their gravity awaken a public interest as soon as they become known, and especially those of a character which every civilized nation considers itself bound to provide a severe punishment for when committed within its own jurisdiction. In such cases inquiry is certain to be instituted at once to ascertain how or why the thing was done, and the popular excitement rises or falls as the news spreads and the facts become known.
.....It is not alone the publicity of the act, or the noise and clamor which attends it, that fixes the nature of the crime, but the act itself. If that is of a character to awaken public interest when it becomes known, it is a "disorder" the nature of which is to affect the community at large, and consequently to invoke the power of the local government whose people have been disturbed by what was done. The very nature of such an act is to disturb the quiet of a peaceful community, and to create, in the language of the treaty, a "disorder" which will "disturb tranquility and public order on shore or in the port." The principle which governs the whole matter is this: Disorders which disturb only the peace of the ship or those on board are to be dealt with exclusively by the sovereignty of the home of the ship, but those which disturb the public peace may be suppressed, and, if need be, the offenders punished by the proper authorities of the local jurisdiction. It may not be easy at all times to determine to which of the two jurisdictions a particular act of disorder belongs. Much will undoubtedly depend on the attending circumstances of the particular case, but all must concede that felonious homicide is a subject for the local jurisdiction, and that if the proper authorities are proceeding with the case in a regular way, the consul has no right to interfere to prevent it.
.....The judgment of the Circuit Court is affirmed.

Notes & Questions
.....1.What is the test for determining whether the port State or the flag State has jurisdiction when a crime has been committed aboard a vessel in port? Is the rule in Wildenhus likely the following: If the port authorities find out about a crime, they may characterize it as offending the port's tranquility?
.....2 The elasticity of the term port tranquility raises questions about the degree of discretion the port authorities may exercise in deciding whether to prosecute. You are the Jersey City District Attorney. There is a nonlethal fistfight between two Belgian citizens below decks on a Belgian merchant vessel. Would it offend the civility or tranquility of New Jersey? Would a fistfight on the decks offend its port tranquility?
.....3. Would it be more appropriate to vest exclusive jurisdiction in the coastal State only (the old customary rule) or in the flag State only (no port tranquility doctrine)?
.........Go To Chapter 6, Section 6.3, p.__,
after Port Tranquility Case reference to this web page.