MURRAY'S LESSEE v. HOBOKEN LAND AND IMPROVEMENT CO.
While working as a customs collector for the federal government, Samuel Swartwout embezzled more than $1 billion. He used this money to purchase land in New Jersey. In accordance with an act passed in 1820, the Treasury Department issued a warrant of distress against Swartwout. This voided his purchase of land and provided for the seizure of the money he embezzled. Swartwout argued that the 1820 Act violated the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of due process of law since it authorized a non-judicial procedure to remove property. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to resolve conflicting opinions of judges on the circuit court of the United States for the district of New Jersey.
Does the federal government violate the due process of law guarantee of the Fifth Amendment by recovering funds embezzled from it through nonjudicial procedures?
No. Justice Benjamin R. Curtis delivered the opinion for a unanimous court. The Court found that "due process of law" meant that all citizens be tried "by the law of the land," a concept established by the Magna Carta. When issuing the warrant, the Treasury Department properly applied the 1820 Act, which was part of the "law of the land." Since the "constitution contains no description of those processes which it [the due process clause] was intended to allow or forbid," the Court examined traditions of common law to find whether nonjudicial warrants had a precedential basis. It found that they did, and did not find a constitutional provision prohibiting their use. Therefore, the Court concluded the Act conformed with the federal government's "power to collect and disburse revenue," which "includes all known and appropriate means of effectually collecting and disbursing that revenue." If a recipient disputes the sum he owes, he may rely upon his procedural right to petition a district court to consider "whether he is indebted as recited in the warrant."