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The Paquete Habana: Country at war (P) v. Fishermen (D)

    Brief Fact Summary. After the United States (P) seized their fishing vessels, the owners (D) argued that international law exempted coastal fishermen from capture as prizes of war.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Exemptions from capture as prizes of war includes coastal fishing vessels, their cargoes and their crews.

    Facts. an appeal of a district court decree condemning two fishing vessels and their cargoes as prizes of war was brought by the owners (D) of two separate fishing vessels. Each of the vessels were fishing smack that were sailing under the Spanish flag, running in and out of Havana and these vessels regularly engaged in fishing on the coast of Cuba.
    On each vessel, the cargoes on it contained fresh fish which the crews had caught. The owners of these vessels were not aware of the existence of a war or any blockage until they were stopped by the blockading United States.
    The owners of the vessels had no form of incriminating thing such as arms and ammunition and they did not even attempt to run the blockade after they became aware of its existence and they willingly gave in when they were apprehended. The argument the owners (D) brought as their appeal was that both customary international law and the writings of leading international scholars recognized an exemption from seizure at wartime of coastal fishing vessels.

    Issue. does exemptions from capture as prizes of war includes coastal fishing vessels, their cargoes and crews?

    Held. (Gray, J.) Yes. Exemption from capture as prizes of war includes coastal fishing vessels, their cargoes and their crews. This doctrine above has been familiar to the United States from the time of the War of Independence, and has been recognized explicitly by the French and British governments.
    Pertaining to this case, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations because there were no treaties and no controlling executive or legislative acts or judicial decisions, and as to the evidence of these, to the works of jurists and commentators, who are well acquainted with the field. So therefore, for trustworthy evidence of what the law really is, such works are resorted to by judicial tribunals and not the speculations of their authors concerning what the law ought to be.
    By the general consent of the world as of present time, and independently of any express treaty or other public act, coastal fishing vessels with their implements, supplies, cargoes and crews, unarmed and honestly pursuing their job of catching and bringing in fresh fish, are exempt from capture as prizes of war and this is an established rule of international law. Reversed.

    Discussion. the Chief Justice Fuller argued that the captured vessels were of such a size and range which did not fall within the exemption. This dissenting opinion was not captured in the main book of this casebook. That the exemption in any case had not become a customary rule of international law and the fact that it was only an “act of grace†that had not been authorized by the President, was also contended by the Chief Justice.


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