383 U.S. 787 (1965), United States v. Price

Citation:383 U.S. 787, 86 S.Ct. 1152, 16 L.Ed.2d 267
Party Name:United States v. Price
Case Date:March 28, 1966
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 787

383 U.S. 787 (1965)

86 S.Ct. 1152, 16 L.Ed.2d 267

United States



United States Supreme Court

March 28, 1966




Appellees are three Mississippi law enforcement officials and 15 private individuals who are alleged to have conspired to deprive three individuals of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The alleged conspiracy involved releasing the victims from jail at night; intercepting, assaulting and killing them, and disposing of their bodies. Its purpose was to "punish" the victims summarily. Two indictments were returned. One charged all appellees with a conspiracy under 18 U.S.C. § 371 to violate 18 U.S.C. § 242, which makes it a misdemeanor willfully and under color of law to subject any person to the deprivation of any rights secured or protected by the Constitution. The indictment also charged all appellees with substantive violations of § 242. The District Court sustained the conspiracy count against a motion to dismiss, and sustained the substantive counts as to the three official defendants. It dismissed the substantive counts as to the 15 private defendants on the ground that, although the indictment alleged that they had acted "under color" of law, it did not allege that they were acting as officers of the State. This dismissal is here on direct appeal as No. 60. The other indictment charged all appellees with a conspiracy in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 241, making it a felony to conspire to interfere with a citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. The District Court dismissed this indictment as to all appellees on the ground that § 241 does not include rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. This dismissal is here on direct appeal as No. 59.


1. The District Court erred in dismissing the indictment in No. 60 insofar as it charged the private defendants with substantive violations of § 242. Pp. 794-796.

(a) "To act `under color' of law does not require that the accused be an officer of the State. It is enough that he is a willful participant in joint activity with the State or its agents." Pp. 794-795.

Page 788

(b) The dismissal of the indictment in No. 60 as to the private persons resulted from the District Court's erroneous construction of the "under color" of law requirement of § 242 as making the statute inapplicable to nonofficials, not upon a construction of the indictment as a pleading; hence the dismissal is reviewable on direct appeal. Pp. 795-796.

2. Section 241 includes within its protection rights secured or protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, and the District Court accordingly erred in dismissing the indictment in No. 59. Pp. 796-807.

(a) The District Court incorrectly assumed that United States v. Williams, 341 U.S. 70, authoritatively determined the inapplicability of § 241 to deprivations of Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Justices who reached that issue in Williams divided equally on the question. That case "thus left the proper construction of § 241, as regards its applicability to protect Fourteenth Amendment rights, an open question." Pp. 797-798.

(b) "There is no doubt that the indictment in No. 59 sets forth a conspiracy within the ambit of the Fourteenth Amendment. Like the indictment in No. 60 . . . , it alleges that the defendants acted `under color of law,' and that the conspiracy included action by the State through its law enforcement officers to punish the alleged victims without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's direct admonition to the States." Pp. 799-800.

(c) The wording of § 241 suggests no limitation of its coverage to exclude Fourteenth Amendment rights. "The language of § 241 is plain and unlimited. . . . [I]ts language embraces all of the rights and privileges secured to citizens by all of the Constitution and all of the laws of the United States." P. 800.

(d) The legislative history of § 241 supports the view that it was intended to encompass Fourteenth Amendment rights within its protection. Pp. 800-806.

Reversed and remanded.

Page 789

FORTAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE FORTAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

These are direct appeals from the dismissal in part of two indictments returned by the United States Grand Jury for the Southern District of Mississippi. The indictments allege assaults by the accused persons upon the rights of the asserted victims to due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. The indictment in No. 59 charges 18 persons1 with violations of 18 U.S.C. § 241 (1964 ed.). In No. 60, the same 18 persons are charged with offenses based upon 18 U.S.C. § 242 (1964 ed.). These are among the so-called civil rights statutes which have come to us from Reconstruction days, the period in our history which also produced the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

The sole question presented in these appeals is whether the specified statutes make criminal the conduct for which the individuals were indicted. It is an issue of construction, not of constitutional power. We have no doubt of

the power of Congress to enforce by appropriate criminal sanction every right guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

United States v. Williams, 341 U.S. 70, 72.2

Page 790

[86 S.Ct. 1155] The events upon which the charges are based, as alleged in the indictments, are as follows: On June 21, 1964, Cecil Ray Price, the Deputy Sheriff of Neshoba County, Mississippi, detained Michael Henry Schwerner, James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman in the Neshoba County jail located in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He released them in the dark of that night. He then proceeded by automobile on Highway 19 to intercept his erstwhile wards. He removed the three men from their automobile, placed them in an official automobile of the Neshoba County Sheriff's office, and transported them to a place on an unpaved road.

These acts, it is alleged, were part of a plan and conspiracy whereby the three men were intercepted by the 18 defendants, including Deputy Sheriff Price, Sheriff Rainey and Patrolman Willis of the Philadelphia, Mississippi, Police Department. The purpose and intent of the release from custody and the interception, according to the charge, were to "punish" the three men. The defendants, it is alleged, "did willfully assault, shoot and kill" each of the three. And, the charge continues, the bodies of the three victims were transported by one of the defendants from the rendezvous on the unpaved road to the vicinity of the construction site of an earthen dam approximately five miles southwest of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Page 791

These are federal, and not state, indictments. They do not charge as crimes the alleged assaults or murders. The indictments are framed to fit the stated federal statutes, and the question before us is whether the attempt of the draftsman for the Grand Jury in Mississippi has been successful: whether the indictments charge offenses against the various defendants which may be prosecuted under the designated federal statutes.

We shall deal first with the indictment in No. 60, based on § 242 of the Criminal Code, and then with the indictment in No. 59, under § 241. We do this for ease of exposition and because § 242 was enacted by the Congress about four years prior to § 241.3 Section 242 was enacted in 1866; § 241 in 1870.

I. No. 60

Section 242 defines a misdemeanor, punishable by fine of not more than $1,000 or imprisonment for not more than one year, or both. So far as here significant, it provides punishment for

Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects any inhabitant of any State . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. . . .

The indictment in No. 60 contains four counts, each of which names as defendants the three officials and 15 nonofficial persons. The First Count charges, on the basis of allegations substantially as set forth above, that all of the defendants conspired "to willfully subject" Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman

to the deprivation

Page 792

of their right, privilege and immunity secured and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States not to be summarily punished without due process of law by persons acting under color of the laws of the State of Mississippi.

This is said to constitute a conspiracy to violate § 242, and therefore an offense under 18 U.S.C. § 371 (1964 [86 S.Ct. 1156] ed.). The latter section, the general conspiracy statute, makes it a crime to conspire to commit any offense against the United States. The penalty for violation is the same as for direct violation of § 242 -- that is, it is a misdemeanor.4

On a motion to dismiss, the District Court sustained this First Count as to all defendants. As to the sheriff, deputy sheriff and patrolman, the court recognized that each was clearly alleged to have been acting "under color of law," as required by § 242.5 As to the private persons, the District Court held that "[I]t is immaterial to the conspiracy that these private individuals were not acting under color of law," because the count charges that they were conspiring with persons who were so acting. See United States v. Rabinowich, 238 U.S. 78, 87.

The court necessarily was satisfied that the indictment, in alleging the arrest, detention, release, interception and killing of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, adequately stated as the purpose of the conspiracy, a violation of § 242, and that this section could be violated by "willfully subject[ing the victims] . . . to the deprivation of their right, privilege and immunity" under the Due Process Clause of...

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