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Carrier's Case (1473) 13 Edw. IV, f. 9, pl. 5 (Star Chamber and Exchequer Chamber) 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.
A "carrier" was hired by a Flemish merchant to transport bales of wool to the port in Southampton. He opened the bales and took the goods for himself. Some of it came into possession of the Sheriff of London. The sheriff gave it to the King (forfeited as "waif", a word to signify runaways or stolen goods). The merchant sued the sheriff to return the goods. He argued that the goods were not stolen, that the carrier only had temporary property rights and so the goods could not be given to the King. The Sheriff argued that the goods were stolen, that it was a felony and therefore properly forfeited to the King as waif.
The legal relationship between the carrier and the merchant, as now, would have been seen as one of bailee and bailor, so bailee's have a duty of reasonable care for others' property in their possession. The merchant had royal safe conduct covering his goods. This meant 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 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 his 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.
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 larceny. 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.
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- 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.