325 U.S. 91 (1945), 42, Screws v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 42
Citation:325 U.S. 91, 65 S.Ct. 1031, 89 L.Ed. 1495
Party Name:Screws v. United States
Case Date:May 07, 1945
Court:United States Supreme Court

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325 U.S. 91 (1945)

65 S.Ct. 1031, 89 L.Ed. 1495



United States

No. 42

United States Supreme Court

May 7, 1945

Argued October 20, 1944




1. Upon review of a judgment affirming the conviction, for violation of § 20 of the Criminal Code and conspiracy thereunto, of local law enforcement officers who arrested a negro citizen for a state offense and wrongfully beat him to death, the judgment is reversed with directions for a new trial. Pp. 92-94, 113.

Opinion of DOUGLAS, J., in which the CHIEF JUSTICE, MR. JUSTICE BLACK and MR. JUSTICE REED concur:

2. Section 20 of the Criminal Code, so far as it penalizes acts which "willfully" deprive a person of any right secured to him by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, is to be construed as requiring a specific intent to deprive of a right which has been made specific by the express terms of the Constitution or laws of the United States or by decisions interpreting them; and, as so construed, the section is not unconstitutional as lacking an ascertainable standard of guilt. P. 101.

3. The trial court erred in not instructing the jury that, in order to convict, they must find that the defendants had the purpose to deprive the prisoner of a constitutional right. In determining whether that requisite bad purpose was present, the jury would be entitled to consider all the attendant circumstances -- the malice of the defendants, the weapons used in the assault, the character and duration of the assault, the provocation, if any, and the like. P. 106.

4. Although no exception was taken to the trial court's charge, the error was so fundamental -- failure to submit to the jury the essential elements of the only offense on which the conviction could rest -- that this Court takes note of it sua sponte. P. 107.

5. In making the arrest and in assaulting the prisoner, the defendants acted "under color of law," within the meaning of § 20 of the Criminal Code. P. 107.

Defendants were officers of the law who had made an arrest, and it was their duty under the law of the State to make the arrest

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effective. By their own admissions, they made the assault in order to protect themselves and to keep the prisoner from escaping.

140 F.2d 662, reversed.

CERTIORARI, 322 U.S. 718, to review a judgment affirming convictions for violation of § 20 of the Criminal Code and conspiracy.

DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the following opinion, in which the CHIEF JUSTICE, MR. JUSTICE BLACK and MR. JUSTICE REED concur.

This case involves a shocking and revolting episode in law enforcement. Petitioner Screws was sheriff of Baker County, Georgia. He enlisted the assistance of petitioner Jones, a policeman, and petitioner Kelley, a special deputy, in arresting Robert Hall, a citizen of the United States and of Georgia. The arrest was made late at night at Hall's home on a warrant charging Hall with theft of a tire. Hall, a young negro about thirty years of age, was handcuffed and taken by car to the courthouse. As Hall alighted from the car at the courthouse square, the three petitioners began beating him with their fists and with a solid-bar blackjack about eight inches long and weighing two pounds. They claimed Hall had reached for a gun and had used insulting language as he alighted from the

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car. But after Hall, still handcuffed, had been knocked to the ground, they continued to beat him from fifteen to thirty minutes until he was unconscious. Hall was then dragged feet first through the courthouse yard into the jail and thrown upon the floor, dying. An ambulance was called, and Hall was removed to a hospital, where he died within the hour and without regaining consciousness. There was evidence that Screws held a grudge against Hall, and had threatened to "get" him.

An indictment was returned against petitioners -- one count charging a violation of § 20 of the Criminal Code, 18 U.S.C. § 52 and another charging a conspiracy to violate § 20 contrary to § 37 of the Criminal Code, 18 U.S.C. § 88. Sec. 20 provides:

Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects, or causes to be subjected, any inhabitant of any State, Territory, or District to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States, or to different punishments, pains, or penalties, on account of such inhabitant being an alien, or by reason of his color, or race, than are prescribed for the punishment of citizens, shall be fined not more than $1,000, or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.

The indictment charged that petitioners, acting under color of the laws of Georgia, "willfully" caused Hall to be deprived of "rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected" to him by the Fourteenth Amendment -- the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law; the right to be tried, upon the charge on which [65 S.Ct. 1032] he was arrested, by due process of law and, if found guilty, to be punished in accordance with the laws of Georgia; that is to say that petitioners "unlawfully and wrongfully did assault, strike and beat the said Robert Hall about the head with human fists and a blackjack causing injuries" to Hall "which were the proximate and immediate cause

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of his death." A like charge was made in the conspiracy count.

The case was tried to a jury.1 The court charged the jury that due process of law gave one charged with a crime the right to be tried by a jury and sentenced by a court. On the question of intent, it charged that

. . . if these defendants, without its being necessary to make the arrest effectual or necessary to their own personal protection, beat this man, assaulted him or killed him while he was under arrest, then they would be acting illegally under color of law, as stated by this statute, and would be depriving the prisoner of certain constitutional rights guaranteed to him by the Constitution of the United States and consented to by the State of Georgia.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty and a fine and imprisonment on each count was imposed. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of conviction, one judge dissenting. 140 F.2d 662. The case is here on a petition for a writ of certiorari which we granted because of the importance in the administration of the criminal laws of the questions presented.


We are met at the outset with the claim that § 20 is unconstitutional insofar as it makes criminal acts in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The argument runs as follows: it is true that this Act, as construed in United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 328, was upheld in its application to certain ballot to frauds committed by state officials. But, in that case, the constitutional rights protected were the rights to vote

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specifically guaranteed by Art. I, 2 and § 4 of the Constitution. Here, there is no ascertainable standard of guilt. There have been conflicting views in the Court as to the proper construction of the due process clause. The majority have quite consistently construed it in broad general terms. Thus, it was stated in Twining v. New Jersey, 211 U.S. 78, 101, that due process requires that

no change in ancient procedure can be made which disregards those fundamental principles, to be ascertained from time to time by judicial action, which have relation to process of law and protect the citizen in his private right, and guard him against the arbitrary action of government.

In Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 105, it was said that due process prevents state action which "offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental." The same standard was expressed in Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 325, in terms of a "scheme of ordered liberty." And the same idea was recently phrased as follows:

The phrase formulates a concept less rigid and more fluid than those envisaged in other specific and particular provisions of the Bill of Rights. Its application is less a matter of rule. Asserted denial is to be tested by an appraisal of the totality of facts in a given case. That which may, in one setting, constitute a denial of fundamental fairness, shocking to the universal sense of justice, may, in other circumstances and in the light of other considerations, fall short of such denial.

Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, 462.

It is said that the Act must be read as if it contained those broad and fluid definitions of due process, and that, if it is so read, it provides no ascertainable standard of guilt. It is pointed out that, in United States v. Cohen Grocery Co., 255 U.S. 81, 89, an Act of Congress was struck down, the enforcement of which would have been

the exact equivalent of an effort to carry out a statute

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which, in terms, merely penalized and punished all acts detrimental to the public interest when unjust and unreasonable in the estimation [65 S.Ct. 1033] of the court and jury.

In that case, the act declared criminal was the making of "any unjust or unreasonable rate or charge in handling or dealing in or with any necessaries." 255 U.S. p. 86. The Act contained no definition of an "unjust or unreasonable rate," nor did it refer to any source where the measure of "unjust or unreasonable" could be ascertained. In the instant case, the decisions of the courts are, to be sure, a source of reference for ascertaining the specific content of the concept of due process. But, even so, the Act would incorporate by reference a large body of changing and uncertain law. That law is not always reducible to specific rules, is expressible only in general terms, and turns many times on...

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