Pierson v. Post, 1805

3 Cai. R. 175
2 Am. Dec. 264 (1805)

Private Property Rights in Wild Animals

This New York Supreme Court of Judicature case illustrating how private property rights in wild animals arise is frequently taught in law schools. It revolves around a disagreement over a dead fox. Lodowick Post, a young man out hunting on vacant land with his friends and a pack of hounds, sighted a fox and gave chase. A young school teacher named Jesse Pierson was walking home from school when he saw the fox flee its pursuers and run into a hiding place. Pierson immediately located the fox, killed it, slung it over his shoulder and continued on his way home. Post confronted Pierson and claimed to be entitled to the dead fox because he had been in “hot pursuit” of it, but Pierson refused to surrender the animal.

The case came before the New York Supreme Court of Judicature and involved an extraordinary group of judges: a future vice-president (Daniel Tompkins), a future U.S. Supreme Court Justice (Henry Brockholst Livingston) and one of the nation’s preeminent jurists (James Kent). The question before the Court was the action that must be taken by a hunter in order to acquire property rights in a wild animal. Post, represented by Cadwallader David Colden, (future Mayor of New York) claimed that “hot pursuit” was sufficient, while Pierson, represented by Nathan Sanford (future Chancellor of New York) maintained that physical possession was required.

The Court’s majority opinion was written by Daniel Tompkins who cited ancient precedents to support the decision that mere pursuit gave Post no legal right to the fox, and that the animal became Pierson’s property when he intercepted and killed it. The dissenting opinion was authored by Henry Brockholst Livingston who maintained that “hot pursuit” was sufficient and deplored Pierson’s actions as unsportsmanlike, unethical, and even despicable.

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