CAMFIELD V. UNITED STATES, 167 U. S. 518 (1897)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Camfield v. United States, 167 U.S. 518 (1897)

Camfield v. United States

No. 278

Submitted April 20, 1897

Decided May 24, 1897

167 U.S. 518


The Act of February 25, 1885, c. 149, 23 Stat. 321, is within the constitutional power of Congress to enact, and is valid.

The government of the United States has, with respect to its own lands within the limits of a state, the rights of an ordinary proprietor to maintain its possession, and to prosecute trespassers, and may legislate for their protection, though such legislation may involve the exercise of the police power, and may complain of and take steps to prevent acts of individuals in fencing in its lands, even though done for the purpose of irrigation and pasturing.

Page 167 U. S. 519

This was a bill in equity, originally filed by the United States in the Circuit Court for the District of Colorado, to compel the removal and abatement of a fence erected and maintained by the defendants whereby about 20,000 acres of public lands were enclosed and appropriated to the exclusive use and benefit of the defendants.

The bill averred in substance that the defendants Daniel A. Camfield and William Drury, with intent to encroach and intrude upon the lands of the United States in an illegal manner, and to monopolize the use of the same for their own special benefit, did on or about the 1st of January, 1893, construct and maintain a fence which enclosed and included about 20,000 acres of the public domain, that the effect of such enclosure was to exclude the United States and all other persons except the defendants therefrom, and that the lands thus wrongfully enclosed consisted of all of the even-numbered sections in townships numbered 7 and 8 north, of range 63 west, of the sixth principal meridian. The bill further averred that said townships 7 and 8 lie within the limits of the grant made by the government to the Union Pacific Railroad Company; that the defendants had acquired from said railroad company the right to use all the odd-numbered sections of land which lie within said townships 7 and 8, and outside thereof, immediately adjacent to the even-numbered sections lying within and on the margin of said townships, and that, in building the fence complained of, the defendants had constructed it entirely on odd-numbered sections, either within or without townships 7 and 8, so as to completely enclose all of the government lands aforesaid, but without locating the fence on any part of the public domain so included.

The subjoined diagram of one township will serve to illustrate the manner in which the fence was constructed so as to enclose the even-numbered sections. The fence is indicated by the dotted lines.

Page 167 U. S. 520


The defendants admitted by their answer that they had constructed a fence so as to enclose all of the even-numbered sections in townships 7 and 8, substantially as set out above in the plaintiff's complaint, save and except that at each section line a swinging gate had been placed to afford access to so much of the public domain as was enclosed by the aforesaid fence. By their answer, the defendants sought to justify the erection of the fence in question upon the ground that they owned all the odd-numbered sections in townships 7 and 8, and that they were engaged in building large reservoirs for the purpose of irrigating the land by them owned and much other land in that vicinity. They averred that in carrying out such irrigation scheme, they found it necessary to fence their lands in townships 7 and 8 in the manner above described. They also denied that they had any intention of monopolizing the even-numbered sections enclosed by said

Page 167 U. S. 521

fence, or to exclude the public therefrom, and further averred in substance that the work in which they were engaged was of great importance and utility, and would redound to the great advantage of the United States and its citizens.

An exception was filed to the answer upon the ground that it was insufficient to constitute a defense to the bill. This exception was sustained, 59 F.5d 2, and, as the defendants declined to plead further, a decree was entered in favor of the government, from which decree the defendants appealed to the court of appeals, which affirmed the judgment of the circuit court, 66 F.1d 1 and 67 F. 17. Whereupon defendants appealed to this Court.

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