Carrier's Case

Carrier's Case

Carrier's Case, 13 Edw. IV, f. 9, pl. 5 (Star Ch. and Exch. Ch. 1473) was a landmark English court case in property crime law decided in the Star Chamber (also called Anonymous v. The Sheriff of London). The English court adopted the "breaking bulk" doctrine. If someone transporting merchandise on behalf of someone else (being a bailee) and keeps the property by breaking it open and misappropriating the contents, it constitutes a crime of larceny. [cite journal |title=Possession and Custody in the Law of Larceny |journal=Yale Law Journal |date=April 1921 |volume=30(6) |pages=pp. 613–617] The case involved a "carrier" who was hired to transport bales of cotton to the port in Southampton. Instead, the bailee took the contents for himself. [cite book |author=Beirne, Piers, James W. Messerschmidt |title=Criminology |date=2000 |publisher=Westview Press] Note that while the baile had the possession of the entire bundle, and thus could not be liable for larceny, the fact that he broke bulk, he became liable for larceny as the "contents" of the bulk were still constructively possessed by the owner.

The Carrier had an agreement with a foreign merchant to carry bales to Southampton. (The carrier can also be called the bailee as he is the person in possession of the goods.) The merchant (also known as the bailor) had royal safe conduct covering his goods. This means, that if the goods were stolen, they would not be given to the Crown by the use of a waif. This happened in medieval times when a good was stolen. When the stolen goods were found, they became property of the King.The carrier broke open the bails and took the contents. The good came into the hands of the sheriff of London who gave the good to the King by waif. The merchant sued for the goods saying that the goods were not stolen and that the carrier had temporary property rights over them and therefore the goods cannot be given to the king. The sheriff's defence was that the carrier had committed a felony and therefore the goods were forfeit to the king. Despite the fact that the carrier had temporary possession of the goods with permission of the merchant, he had 'broken bulk', i.e., he had broken up the bails and then sold them. The fact that he broke bulk shows the intention to commit felony. He was therefore guilty and hence the goods were forfeited to the king. However, due to the royal safe conduct that the merchant had, he got his goods back anyway.


Carrier's Case, 13 Edw. IV, f. 9, pl. 5 (Star Ch. and Exch. Ch. 1473) was actually two cases. The case was first heard in the Star Chamber and then, in Exchequer. The case created the "breaking bulk" doctrine. The case involved a foreign merchant (probably Flemish) who hired a "carrier" to transport bales (probably of wool) to the port in Southampton. Instead, the bailee opened the bales and took the contents for himself. [2] Some of the contents came into the possession of the Sheriff of London. The merchant sued the Sheriff to reclaim the goods. The Sheriff's defense was the the goods were stolen and therefore forfeited to the King as waif. Under established law the merchant should have won easily. The doctrine of possessorial immunity said that a person who acquires possession of property lawfully cannot be prosecuted for larceny for converting the goods to his own use. Nonetheless, the judges all agreed that the actions of the carrier constituted larceny but they could not agree on a rationale. The prevailing reason was provided by Lord Chokke who concluded that the carrier had lawful possession of the bales only. The merchant retained constructive possession of the contents. Therefore, when the carrier broke open the bales and removed the contents, he committed the crime of larceny because he had taken the contents from the possession of the merchant. The merchant had a royal safe conduct covering his goods. The merchant argued that this protection meant that even if he goods were stolen, as the court had determined, they would not be forfeited to the King as waif. The court agreed with the merchant on this second point and the Sheriff was required to return the goods to the merchant. [As Fletcher notes in his book, Rethinking Criminal Law, the courts could have obtained the same result by following established precedent. There was no apparent need to create the legal fiction of breaking bulk or to consider the consequent issue of whether "safe conduct" protected the merchant whose property had been stolen from seizure as waif.]

The Carrier’s case is called a landmark in the development of the law of larceny. It could more appropriately be called an anomaly. The case did not greatly expand the scope of larceny. The “breaking bulk” doctrine was of limited application and easily evaded by unscrupulous carriers. The case did not overrule the doctrine of possessorial immunity which was the primary impediment to prosecuting persons who converted property that had been entrusted to their care. In fact, Carrier’s was the first and only case until the late eighteenth century to “pierce the veil” of the doctrine. [Rethinking Criminal Law, George P. Fletcher] The case only marginally increased the protection afforded merchants by the criminal law. [Id.] As noted the rule could be easily circumvented because the necessary corollary of the rule is that a carrier who converted goods to his own use without “breaking bulk” was not guilty of larceny. [Id.] Further, it is questionable whether the application of the criminal law and its sanctions to commercial relationships would promote trade and commerce. Why would a reputable carrier literally risk his neck to make a few bucks transporting goods under social and economic circumstance fraught with the danger of non-delivery? It is one thing to risk civil liability for the loss or non-delivery of goods. It is quite another to assume the risk that loss or failure to deliver property could result in the carrier’s being hanged.

ee also

*English law

Further reading

*cite book |author=Hall, Jerome |title=Theft, Law and Society |edition=2nd edition |date=1952

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