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DOBBINS V. LOS ANGELES, 195 U. S. 223 (1904)

U.S. Supreme Court

Dobbins v. Los Angeles, 195 U.S. 223 (1904)

Dobbins v. Los Angeles

No. 107

Argued October 11-12, 1904

Decided November 14, 1904

195 U.S. 223


While every intendment is to be made in favor of the lawfulness of the exercise of municipal power making regulations to promote the public health, municipal bylaws and ordinances, and even legislative enactments undertaking to regulate useful business enterprises, are subject to investigation in the courts with a view to determining whether the law or ordinance is a lawful exercise of the police power, or whether, under the guise of enforcing police regulations, there has been an unwarranted and arbitrary interference with constitutional rights to carry on a lawful business, make contracts, or use and enjoy property.

While the right to exercise the police power is a continuing one and a business lawful today may in the future become a menace to the public welfare and be required to yield to the public good, the exercise of the police power is subject to judicial review, and property rights cannot be wrongfully destroyed by arbitrary enactment.

Although an ordinance may be lawful on its face and apparently fair in its terms, yet if it is enforced in such a manner as to work a discrimination against a part of a community for no lawful reason, such exercise of power will be invalidated by the courts. Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U. S. 356.

A municipal ordinance was adopted in September fixing the limits within which gas works might be erected. Thereafter, a permit was granted for the erection of a plant; in November, another ordinance was adopted amending the September ordinance, and by which ordinance the territory on which the works were in course of erection and purchased in reliance upon the September ordinance was excluded. There had been

Page 195 U. S. 224

no change in the neighborhood or conditions. Held to be void as against the holder of the permit as an arbitrary and discriminatory exercise of the police power which amounted to a taking of property without due process of law and an impairment of property rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Where property rights will be destroyed, unlawful interference by criminal proceedings under a void law or ordinance may be reached and controlled by a court of equity.

This is a writ of error to the Supreme Court of the State of California, seeking a reversal of the judgment of that court affirming the judgment of the superior court dismissing the complaint of the plaintiff in error against the City of Los Angeles.

Plaintiff in error filed a bill of complaint against the City of Los Angeles seeking an injunction to restrain the enforcement of certain ordinances prohibiting the erection or maintenance of gas works except within prescribed limits in said city.

The case was decided upon demurrer to the bill. The complaint sets forth, in substance, that on August 26, 1901, the City Council of Los Angeles adopted an ordinance making it unlawful to erect and maintain gas works outside of a certain district described in the ordinance, and fixing penalties for the violation thereof. While this ordinance was in force, the plaintiff in error made a contract with the Valley Gas & Fuel Company for the erection of certain gas works upon territory to be thereafter designated by her, and on September 28, 1901, purchased lands within the limits of the privileged district as fixed by the ordinance. That on the November, 22, 1901, upon application to the Board of Fire Commissioners of the City of Los Angeles, that body granted to the plaintiff in error the privilege to erect the gas works upon the territory aforesaid. Thereupon the plaintiff in error directed the Valley Gas & Fuel Company to proceed with the erection of the works upon the premises so purchased. That the foundations were constructed at a cost of upwards of $2,500. After the foundations had been nearly completed, the city council, on November 25,

Page 195 U. S. 225

1901, passed a second ordinance, amending the first ordinance and thereby so limiting the boundaries of the territory within which the erection of gas works was permitted in said city as to include the premises of the plaintiff in error within the prohibited territory. The work of constructing the works was continuously prosecuted until the latter part of February, 1902, when the plaintiff in error alleges that the City of Los Angeles, combining and confederating with one James R. C. Burton and other persons unknown, caused certain employees of the company engaged in the erection of said works to be arrested, charged with the violation of the said city ordinance. Other arrests were made on the first and third of March, 1902. On the third of March, 1902, the city council passed a third ordinance, amending the ordinance of November 25, 1901, in respect to the description of the district within which gas works could be erected. On March 6, 1902, the city caused the arrest of certain persons employed by the company in charge of the erection of the works, charged with the violation of the amended city ordinance.

It is averred that the adoption by the city council of the ordinances aforesaid, and the attempted enforcement thereof, were instigated by officers and agents of the Los Angeles Lighting Company, a corporation engaged in manufacturing and supplying gas in said city, and having a monopoly of said business therein. It is further averred that the action of the municipal authorities complained of was taken for the purpose of protecting the said Los Angeles Lighting Company in the enjoyment of its monopoly. It is also claimed that the territory surrounding the premises of the plaintiff in error, and within which, under the ordinance of August 26, in force when the complainant made her purchase and located and began the erection of the gas works, it was lawful so to do, and which, by the amending ordinances, was added to the prohibited territory, was and is a district devoted almost exclusively to manufacturing enterprises. Within its boundaries there is a large amount of vacant and unoccupied land which is and

Page 195 U. S. 226

will continue to be useless except for the erection of manufacturing establishments, within which were located at that time a soap factory, a wool-pulling factory, three wineries, numerous oil wells in operation, iron foundry, brass foundry, oil refinery; immediately east of said tract, railroads and an extensive tannery; immediately north, the oil tanks and refinery of the Standard Oil Company. That the works being constructed for the plaintiff in error are to be built upon concrete foundations with a superstructure of noncombustible material, so that there can be no danger from explosion, bursting, or leaking. The machinery is to be of the most approved pattern, and that there can be no leakage or escape of odors or any interference with the health, comfort, or safety of the inhabitants of the city.

The plaintiff in error, relying upon the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, prays that the permit granted by the board of fire commissioners be declared to be a valid and subsisting contract between the City of Los Angeles and herself, and that all ordinances passed by the city council in contravention thereof be declared void; that the defendant be enjoined from enforcing said ordinances against the plaintiff, from delaying or interfering with the action of the plaintiff in erecting the said works, from interfering with the maintenance and operation of the same, and for general relief.

Page 195 U. S. 234

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