341 U.S. 70 (1951), 26, United States v. Williams

Docket Nº:No. 26
Citation:341 U.S. 70, 71 S.Ct. 581, 95 L.Ed. 758
Party Name:United States v. Williams
Case Date:April 23, 1951
Court:United States Supreme Court

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341 U.S. 70 (1951)

71 S.Ct. 581, 95 L.Ed. 758

United States



No. 26

United States Supreme Court

April 23, 1951




After one of the respondents had been convicted and the others acquitted of substantive offenses under what is now 18 U.S.C. § 242 -- i.e., beating or aiding and abetting the beating of certain suspects until they confessed to a theft -- they were convicted in the Federal District Court for a violation of what is now 18 U.S.C. § 241. The indictment arose out of the same facts, and alleged that, "acting under the laws of . . . Florida," they

conspired to injure the free exercise and enjoyment of the rights and privileges secured to him and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court of Appeals reversed their conviction on this conspiracy indictment.

Held: the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed. P. 82.

(a) MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, MR. JUSTICE JACKSON and MR. JUSTICE MINTON, was of the opinion that § 241 only covers conduct which interferes with rights arising from the substantive powers of the Federal Government, and that including an allegation that the defendants acted under color of state law in an indictment under § 241 does not extend the protection of the section to rights which the Federal Constitution merely guarantees against abridgment by the States. Pp. 71-82.

(b) MR. JUSTICE BLACK concurred in the result on the ground that trial under this conspiracy indictment was barred by the principle of res judicata. Pp. 86-86.

179 F.2d 644 affirmed.


A conviction of respondents for violation of what is now 18 U.S.C. § 241 was reversed by the Court of Appeals. 179 F.2d 644. This Court granted certiorari. 340 U.S. 849. Affirmed, p. 82.

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FRANKFURTER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, MR. JUSTICE JACKSON and MR. JUSTICE MINTON joined.

In 1947, a Florida corporation employed a detective agency to investigate thefts of its property. The inquiry was conducted by one Williams, the head of the agency, and among the participants were two of his employees and a member of the Miami [71 S.Ct. 582] police force detailed to assist in the investigation. Certain of the company's employees fell under suspicion, and Williams and his collaborators, without arresting the suspects, took them one by one to a shack on the company's premises. There, the investigators subjected them to the familiar "third-degree" which, after blows, kicks, threats, and prolonged exposure to a brilliant light, yielded "confessions."

Williams and the other three were thereupon indicted for violation of §§ 19 and 20 of the Criminal Code of the United States. 18 U.S.C. (1946 ed.) §§ 51 and 52, now 18 U.S.C. (1950 ed.) §§ 241 and 242. Williams was convicted under § 20, the indictment alleging that he

willfully, under color of the laws, statutes, ordinances, regulations and customs of the Florida . . . subjected . . . an inhabitant of the Florida to deprivation of the rights, privileges and immunities secured to him and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. . . .

This conviction is reviewed in No. 365, post, p. 97, also decided this day. The other defendants were acquitted of the charges under § 20, and, as to all defendants, a

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mistrial was declared under § 19. This outcome of the indictment under §§ 19 and 20 was followed by a new indictment against the four defendants under § 19. The indictment alleged that, "acting under the laws of the Florida," the defendants

conspired to injure . . . a citizen of the United States and of the Florida, in the free exercise and enjoyment of the rights and privileges secured to him and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. . . .

This time all the defendants were convicted, but, on appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. It held that, in the conspiracy provision of § 19

the Congress had in mind the federal rights and privileges which appertain to citizens as such and not the general rights extended to all persons by the clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

179 F.2d 644, 648. In the alternative, the court concluded that a broader construction of § 19 would render it void for indefiniteness, and that there was error in the judge's charge, as well as in the exclusion of evidence of the prior acquittal of three of the defendants. Together with Nos. 134 and 365 of this Term, the other two cases growing out of the same affair, we brought the case here because important questions in the administration of civil rights legislation are raised. 340 U.S. 849.

The alternative grounds for the decision of the Court of Appeals need not be considered, for we agree that § 241 (to use the current designation for what was § 19 of the Criminal Code) does not reach the conduct laid as an offense in the prosecution here. This is not because we deny the power of Congress to enforce by appropriate criminal sanction every right guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; nor is it because we fully accept the course of reasoning of the court below. We base our decision on the history of § 241, its text and context, the statutory framework in which it stands, its practical and judicial application controlling

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elements in construing a federal criminal provision that affects the wise adjustment between State responsibility and national control of essentially local affairs. The elements all converge in one direction. They lead us to hold that § 241 only covers conduct which interferes with rights arising from the substantive powers of the Federal Government.

What is now known as § 241 originated as § 6 of the Act of May 31, 1870, 16 Stat. 140. That statute was entitled "An Act to enforce the Right of Citizens of the United States to vote in the several States of this Union, and for other Purposes." In furtherance of its chief end of assuring the right of Negroes to vote, it provided in §§ 2 and 3 that it should be a misdemeanor for any "person or officer" wrongfully to fail in a duty imposed on him by State law to perform or permit performance of acts necessary to registering or voting. In § 4, interference with elections by private persons [71 S.Ct. 583] was made a similar offense. In the course of passage through Congress, several sections were added which had a larger purpose. One of them, § 17, was derived from the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 14 Stat. 27, and was designed to "secure to all persons the equal protection of the laws."1 It imposed imprisonment up to one year and a fine up to one thousand dollars on

any person who, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, shall subject, or cause to be subjected, any inhabitant of any State or Territory to the deprivation of any right secured or protected by the last preceding section of this act, or to different punishment, pains, or penalties on account of such person being an alien, or by reason of his color or race, than is prescribed for the punishment of citizens. . . .

16 Stat. 140, 144.

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Through successive revisions, it has become § 242, the application of which to the facts before us is considered in No. 365, post, p. 97.

Another of the broader provisions is the section which is our immediate concern. This was its original form:

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That if two or more persons shall band or conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway, or upon the premises of another, with intent to violate any provision of this act, or to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having exercised the same, such persons shall be held guilty of felony, and, on conviction thereof, shall be fined or imprisoned, or both at the discretion of the court -- the fine not to exceed five thousand dollars, and the imprisonment not to exceed ten years -- and shall, moreover, be thereafter ineligible to, and disabled from holding, any office or place of honor, profit, or trust created by the Constitution or laws of the United States.

16 Stat. 140, 141.

The dominant conditions of the Reconstruction Period were not conducive to the enactment of carefully considered and coherent legislation. Strong post-war feeling caused inadequate deliberation, and led to loose and careless phrasing of laws relating to the new political issues. The sections before us are no exception. Although enacted together, they were proposed by different sponsors, and hastily adopted. They received little attention in debate. While the discussion of the bill as a whole fills about 100 pages of the Congressional Globe, only two or three related to § 6, and these are in good part

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a record of complaint that the section was inadequately considered or understood.2

[71 S.Ct. 584] Nevertheless, some conclusions are warranted. The first is that interference with civil rights by State officers was dealt with fully by § 17 of the Act. Three years before its enactment, Congress had passed the first general conspiracy statute. Act of March 2, 1867, § 30, 14 Stat. 484, R.S. § 5440, now 18 U.S.C. (1950 ed.) § 371. This provision, in conjunction with § 17, reached conspiracies under color of State law to deprive persons of rights guaranteed

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by the Fourteenth Amendment. No other provision of the Act of 1870 was necessary for that purpose.

The second conclusion is that, if language is to carry any meaning at all, it must be clear that the principal purpose of § 6, unlike § 17, was to reach private...

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