341 U.S. 97 (1951), 365, Williams v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 365
Citation:341 U.S. 97, 71 S.Ct. 576, 95 L.Ed. 774
Party Name:Williams v. United States
Case Date:April 23, 1951
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 97

341 U.S. 97 (1951)

71 S.Ct. 576, 95 L.Ed. 774

Williams

v.

United States

No. 365

United States Supreme Court

April 23, 1951

Argued January 8, 1951

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. A special police officer who, in his official capacity, by use of force and violence, obtains a confession from a person suspected of crime may be prosecuted under what is now 18 U.S.C. § 242, which makes it an offense for any person, under color of law, willfully to subject 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. Pp. 98-104.

2. Petitioner, a private detective who held a special police officer's card issued by the City of Miami, Fla., and had taken an oath and qualified as a special police officer, was employed by a business corporation to ascertain the identity of thieves who had been stealing its property. Showing his badge and accompanied by a regular policeman, he beat certain suspects and thereby obtained confessions.

Held: on the record in this case, petitioner was acting "under color" of law within the meaning of § 242, or at least the jury could properly so find. Pp. 99-100.

3. As applied, under the facts of this case, to the denial of rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, § 242 is not void for vagueness. Pp. 100-102.

4. Where police take matters into their own hands, seize victims, and beat them until they confess, they deprive the victims of rights under the Constitution. P. 101.

5. In view of the terms of the indictment, as interpreted by the instructions to the jury, it cannot be said that any issue of vagueness of § 242, as construed and applied, is present in this case. Pp. 102-104.

179 F.2d 656 affirmed.

Petitioner was convicted of a violation of what is now 18 U.S.C. § 242. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 179 F.2d 656. This Court granted certiorari. 340 U.S. 850. Affirmed, p. 104.

Page 98

DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether a special police officer who in his official capacity subjects a person suspected of crime to force and violence in order to obtain a confession may be prosecuted under § 20 of the Criminal Code, 18 U.S.C. (1946 ed.) § 52, now 18 U.S.C. § 242.

Section 20 provides in pertinent part:

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 . . . shall be fined not more than $1,000, or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.

The facts are these: the Lindsley Lumber Co. suffered numerous thefts, and hired petitioner, who operated a detective agency, to ascertain the identity of the thieves. Petitioner held a special police officer's card issued by the City of Miami, Florida, and had taken an oath and qualified as a special police officer. Petitioner and others over a period of three days took four men to a paint shack on the company's premises and used brutal methods to obtain a confession from each of them. A rubber hose, a pistol, a blunt instrument, a sash cord, and other implements were used in the project. One man was forced to look at a bright light for fifteen minutes; when he was blinded, he was repeatedly hit with a rubber hose

Page 99

and a sash cord and finally knocked to the floor. Another was knocked from a chair and hit in the stomach again and again. He was put back in the chair and the procedure was repeated. One was backed against the wall and jammed in the chest with a club. Each was beaten, threatened, and unmercifully punished for several hours until he confessed. One Ford, a policeman, was sent by his superior to lend authority to the proceedings. And petitioner, who committed the assaults, went about flashing his badge.

The indictment charged, among other things, that petitioner acting under color of law used force to make each victim confess to his guilt and implicate others, and that the victims were denied the right to be tried by due process of law and, if found guilty, to be sentenced and punished in accordance with the laws of the state. Petitioner was found guilty by a jury under instructions which conformed with the rulings of the Court in Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 179 F.2d 656. The case, which is a companion to No. 26, United States v. Williams, ante, p. 70, and No. 134, United States v. Williams, ante, p. 58, decided this day, is here on certiorari.

We think it clear that petitioner was acting "under color" of law within the meaning of § 20, or at least that the jury could properly so find. We interpreted this phrase of § 20 in United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 326.

Misuse of power, possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law, is action taken "under color of" state law.

And see Screws v. United States, supra, at 107-111. It is common practice, as we noted in Labor Board v. Jones & Laughlin Co., 331 U.S. 416, 429, for private guards or detectives to be vested with policemen's powers. We know from the record that that is the policy of Miami, Florida. Moreover, this was an investigation

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conducted under the aegis of the State, as evidenced by the fact that a regular police officer was detailed to attend it. We need go no further to conclude that the lower court, to whom we give deference on local law matters, see Gardner v. New Jersey, 329 U.S. 565, 583, was correct in holding that petitioner was no mere interloper, but had a semblance of...

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