373 U.S. 284 (1963), 68, Wright v. Georgia

Docket Nº:No. 68
Citation:373 U.S. 284, 83 S.Ct. 1240, 10 L.Ed.2d 349
Party Name:Wright v. Georgia
Case Date:May 20, 1963
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 284

373 U.S. 284 (1963)

83 S.Ct. 1240, 10 L.Ed.2d 349

Wright

v.

Georgia

No. 68

United States Supreme Court

May 20, 1963

        Argued November 7, 1962

        CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF GEORGIA

        Syllabus

        Petitioners, six young Negroes, were convicted of breach of the peace for peacefully playing basketball in a public park in Savannah, Ga., customarily used only by white people and not dispersing when ordered to do so by the police. There was no evidence of disorderly conduct or of any activity which might be thought to violate a breach of the peace statute. One of the arresting officers testified that petitioners were arrested because they were Negroes. At their trial, both in a demurrer to the accusation and in motions for a new trial, petitioners contended, inter alia, that the breach of the peace statute violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it did not give adequate warning that their conduct violated it. The Georgia Supreme Court held that error in denial of the motions for a new trial could not be considered because it was not properly briefed on the appeal, and it affirmed the convictions.

        Held:

        1. There was no adequate state ground for the refusal by the Georgia Supreme Court to consider error in the denial of petitioners' motions for a new trial. Pp. 289-291.

        2. Petitioners' convictions violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 291-293.

        (a) The convictions cannot be sustained on the ground that failure to obey the command of a police officer constitutes a traditional form of breach of the peace. One cannot be punished for failing to obey a command which violates the Constitution, and the police officers' command violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, since it was intended to enforce racial discrimination in the park. Pp. 291-292.

        (b) The convictions cannot be sustained on the ground that petitioners' conduct was likely to cause a breach of the peace by others, since the possibility of disorder by others cannot justify exclusion of a person from a place where he has a constitutional right to be. Pp. 292-293.

        (c) If petitioners were convicted because a park rule reserved the park for use by younger people at the time, the statute did not give adequate warning, as required by the Due Process Clause of

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the Fourteenth Amendment, since neither the existence nor the publication of any such rule was proved. P. 293.

        217 Ga. 453, 122 S.E.2d 737, reversed.

        WARREN, J., lead opinion

        MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

        Petitioners, six young Negroes, were convicted of breach of the peace for peacefully playing basketball in a public park in Savannah, Georgia, on the early afternoon of Monday, January 23, 1961. The record is devoid of evidence of any activity which a breach of the peace statute might be thought to punish. Finding that there is no adequate state ground to bar review by this Court, and that the convictions are violative of due process of law secured by the Fourteenth Amendment, we hold that the judgments below must be reversed.

        Only four witnesses testified at petitioners' trial: the two arresting officers, the city recreational superintendent, and a sergeant of police. All were prosecution witnesses. No witness contradicted any testimony given by any other witnesses. On the day in question, the petitioners were playing in a basketball court at Daffin Park, Savannah, Georgia. The park is owned and operated by the city for recreational purposes, is about 50 acres in area, and is customarily used only by whites. A white woman notified the two police officer witnesses of the presence of petitioners in the park. They investigated, according to

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one officer,

because some colored people were playing in the park. I did not ask this white lady how old these people were. As soon as I found out these were colored people, I immediately went there.

        The officer also conceded that

I have never made previous arrests in Daffin Park because people played basketball there. . . . I arrested these people for playing basketball in Daffin Park. One reason was because they were negroes. I observed the conduct of these people, when they were on the basketball court and they were doing nothing besides playing basketball, they were just normally playing basketball, and none of the children from the schools were there at that particular time.

        The other officer admitted that petitioners

were not necessarily creating any disorder, they were just "shooting at the goal," that's all they were doing, they wasn't disturbing anything.

        Petitioners were neat and well dressed. Nevertheless, the officers ordered the petitioners to leave the park. One petitioner asked one of the officers "by what authority" he asked them to leave; the officer responded that he "didn't need any orders to come out there. . . ." But he admitted that "it is [not] unusual for one to inquire `why' they are being arrested." When arrested, the petitioners obeyed the police orders and, without disturbance, entered the cruiser to be transported to police headquarters. No crowd assembled.

        The recreational superintendent's testimony was confused and contradictory. In essence, he testified that school children had preference in the use of the park's playground facilities, but that there was no objection to use by older persons if children were not there at the time. No children were present at this time. The arrests were made at about 2 p.m. The schools released their students at 2:30, and, according to one officer, it would have been at least 30 minutes before any children could have reached the playground. The officer also stated that he

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did not know whether the basketball court was reserved for a particular age group, and did not know the rules of the City Recreational Department. It was conceded at the trial that no signs were posted in the park indicating what areas, if any, were reserved for younger children at particular hours. In oral argument before this Court, it was conceded that the regulations of the park were not printed.

       [83 S.Ct. 1243] The accusation charged petitioners with assembling "for the purpose of disturbing the public peace. . . ." and not dispersing at the command of the officers. The jury was charged, with respect to the offense itself, only in terms of the accusation and the statute.1 Upon conviction, five petitioners were sentenced to pay a fine of $100 or to serve five months in prison. Petitioner Wright was sentenced to pay a fine of $125 or to serve six months in prison.

        Petitioners' principal contention in this Court is that the breach of the peace statute did not give adequate warning that their conduct violated that enactment in derogation of their rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. This contention was plainly raised at the trial, both in a demurrer to the accusation and in motions for a new trial, and was pressed on appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. Both the demurrer and new trial motions raised a number of other issues. The Georgia Supreme Court held that error in the denial of the motions for a new trial could not be considered because it was not properly briefed on the appeal. But the court nevertheless

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seemed to pass upon the claim because it had been raised in the demurrer,2 and affirmed the convictions. 217 Ga. 453, 122 S.E.2d 737. Certiorari was granted. 370 U.S. 935.

        Since there is some question as to whether the Georgia Supreme Court considered petitioners' claim of vagueness

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to have been properly raised in the demurrer,3 we prefer to rest our jurisdiction upon a firmer foundation. We hold, for the reasons set forth hereinafter, [83 S.Ct. 1244] that there was no adequate state ground for the Georgia court's refusal to consider error in the denial of petitioners' motions for a new trial.

        I

        A commentator on Georgia procedure has concluded that "[p]robably no phase of pleading in Georgia is fraught with more technicalities than with respect to raising constitutional issues."4 Examination of the Georgia cases bears out this assertion. In an extraordinary number, an attempt to raise constitutional issues has been frustrated by a holding that the question was not properly raised or pursued. But

[w]hatever springes the State may set for those who are endeavoring to assert rights that...

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