On , Nicholas Waln, clerk of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, published the following interpretation of a state tax statute:
In the Act of Assembly which grants the four million of dollars, Cap. 105, is the following clause.
§7. If any person shall willfully conceal in the Return which he makes to the Township or Ward Assessor any part of his taxable Property within such Township or Ward with Intent to screen the same from Taxation, the person so concealing shall pay four fold Taxes for all such Property so concealed, etc.
Under this Act the following case has arisen:
A number of persons, who apprehend they are called upon to bear a testimony against wars and fighting, not though obstinacy, fraud, or deceit, but from a real scruple of conscience, decline giving an account of their estates, as they cannot actively pay a tax to carry on war, though they do not use any device to screen their property from taxation, but expect passively to pay their proportion.
Question: Are such persons within the meaning of the said Section and liable to the heavy penalty of a four fold tax upon all their estate?
Answer: Penal laws which affect particular persons are to be strictly construed and not extended beyond what the clear words will bear; it would be very unsafe to trust those who are to execute laws with power to create offences by strained implications, otherwise they might become as gins and snares to entrap innocent people and be prostituted to purposes very different from what the legislature intended. The Assembly have been very plain in describing the fraud or offence which they mean to have punished, and I apprehend not one of the characters which go to make up the offence is to be found in the case stated. I know not by what train of reasoning it can be made out, that a person who conscientiously declines making any return at all for the reasons stated and who expects passively to pay his full tax, is one “who in the return he makes willfully conceals a part of his taxable property, etc., with intent to screen the same from taxation.” The two cases are as distinct in nature and description as light and darkness; the Act of Assembly has reference to something done with a covinous or fraudulent intention, the case stated has not the least mixture of fraud or criminal intention, in the one is a design to screen his property from taxation, in the other no such view. In short, to constitute the offence mentioned in the Act three things are necessary: 1st, there must be a return made. 2dly, a willful concealing a part, 3dly, with intention to screen the same from taxation.
But it may be objected that giving no account must be a greater offence than giving a partial account. To this I oppose (upon the case stated), a well-known law maxim, that the Act does not make a man guilty unless the mind be guilty, and where a person of sober life and good morals does declare he acts from a mere motive of conscience in matters of this kind, charity, which is the perfection of Christianity, forbids to deny him credit and would induce to proceed in the most lenient manner. And besides as the Act of Assembly makes no provision in the case stated, it is casus omissus and it is as I apprehend out of the power of the commissioners and assessors to impose the penalty; neither would such a clause to accumulate suffering upon conscientious men have been just, confounding the innocent and guilty together. I therefore conclude that the Assembly intended to leave matters of this sort to the reasonable discretion of the commissioners and assessors, who may fall upon easy means of doing what will obtain a proper proportion of tax from such persons without any public disadvantage and more consistent with equity, which is all that ought to be desired. For the above and other reasons I am clear in opinion that the penalty referred to in the question can not by the said Act or by any law that I know of existing in Pennsylvania, be imposed upon the persons stated in the case.