7 American State Trials 893
The Trial of William Landon for Breach of the Prohibition Law of the State, Albany, N.Y., 1855
In April 1855, the New York Legislature passed “An Act to Prevent Intemperance, Pauperism and Crime.” It forbade the sale of intoxicating liquors by all except vendors authorized to sell alcohol for mechanical, chemical, medicinal and sacramental uses.
The law went into effect on July 4, 1855, and in the week that followed, several hotel keepers from around the State were charged with infringing the law. Among them was Mr. William Landon of Albany, who was the proprietor of the leading hotel in the State capital.
The case came before the Court of General Sessions, Albany, New York, in July 1855. Judge John Orton Cole presided, Jacob I. Werner represented the People, and Mr. Landon was defended by a leading attorney and later Court of Appeals Judge, John K. Porter.
Mr. Porter agreed that on July 6 Landon had provided two guests named Johnson and Hastings with two glasses of brandy that had been imported from France, and that one of the guests had paid for both. Mr. Porter asked the Court to dismiss the case on the ground that the law was unconstitutional. Judge Cole responded that the only tribunal that could set the law aside was the State’s supreme tribunal, the New York Court of Appeals, and Mr. Landon then pled not guilty and requested a jury trial.
Before the jury, Mr. Porter argued that (1) in instances where Congress has power to regulate, the State law is void because the U. S. Constitution provides that Acts of Congress passed within the scope of the constitutional power of Congress are the supreme law of the land; (2) in Brown v. Maryland, the Supreme Court of the United States had decided that a state law conflicting with the free right of the importer to sell the imported package was void, because it would render the imported article valueless; (3) while a state may regulate the sale of imported property and may tax it like other property, it has no power to prohibit a sale; and (4) even though the Act was intended to provide for the public good of the state, it was a violation of the provisions of the United States and State Constitutions, which declare that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” Here, on July 3, Landon was the owner of the property in question, enjoying all the rights incident to ownership, but on July 4 his possession of that same property was a crime, and the property was rendered valueless.
The jury retired and, after a short absence, returned a verdict of not guilty.
Several other prosecutions under this Act took place in other places in the State where the defendants were convicted by the jury. Two of them appealed to the Court of Appeals where, in March 1856, the Prohibition Act was declared to be unconstitutional. These cases were Wynehamer v. People, 13 N.Y. 378 (1856) and People v. Toynbee, 2 Park Crim. Rep. 490.