415 U.S. 452 (1974), 72-5581, Steffel v. Thompson

Docket Nº:No. 72-5581
Citation:415 U.S. 452, 94 S.Ct. 1209, 39 L.Ed.2d 505
Party Name:Steffel v. Thompson
Case Date:March 19, 1974
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 452

415 U.S. 452 (1974)

94 S.Ct. 1209, 39 L.Ed.2d 505

Steffel

v.

Thompson

No. 72-5581

United States Supreme Court

March 19, 1974

Argued November 13, 1973

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner, who had twice been warned to stop handbilling on an exterior sidewalk of a shopping center against American involvement in Vietnam and threatened with arrest by police if he failed to do so, and whose companion continued handbilling and was charged with violating the Georgia criminal trespass law, brought an action for injunctive and declaratory relief in the District Court, claiming that application to him of that law would violate his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The District Court dismissed the action, finding that "no meaningful contention can be made that the state has [acted] or will . . . act in bad faith," and therefore "the rudiments of an active controversy between the parties . . . [are] lacking." The Court of Appeals affirmed, being of the view that Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, made it clear that irreparable injury must be measured by bad faith harassment, and such a test must be applied to a request for injunctive relief against threatened, as well as pending, state court criminal prosecution; and that it followed from the reasoning of Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66, that the same test of bad faith harassment is a prerequisite for declaratory relief with respect to a threatened prosecution.

Held:

1. This case presents an "actual controversy" under Art. III of the Constitution and the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act, the alleged threats of prosecution in the circumstances alleged not being "imaginary or speculative" and it being unnecessary for petitioner to expose himself to actual arrest or prosecution to make his constitutional challenge. Whether the controversy remains substantial and continuing in the light of the effect of the recent reduction of the Nation's involvement in Vietnam on petitioner's desire to engage in the handbilling at the shopping center must be resolved by the District Court on remand. Pp. 458-460.

2. Federal declaratory relief is not precluded when a prosecution based upon an assertedly unconstitutional state statute has been threatened, but is not pending, even if a showing of bad faith

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enforcement or other special circumstances has not been made. Pp. 460-473.

(a) When no state criminal proceeding is pending at the time the federal complaint is filed, considerations of equity, comity, and federalism on which Younger v. Harris and Samuels v. Mackell both supra, were based, have little vitality: federal intervention does not result in duplicative legal proceedings or disruption of the state criminal justice system; nor can federal intervention, in that circumstance, be interpreted as reflecting negatively upon the state courts' ability to enforce constitutional principles. Pp. 460-462

[94 S.Ct. 1213] (b) Even if the Court of Appeals correctly viewed injunctive relief as inappropriate (a question not reached here, petitioner having abandoned his request for that remedy), the court erred in treating the requests for injunctive and declaratory relief as a single issue and in holding that a failure to demonstrate irreparable injury precluded the granting of declaratory relief. Congress plainly intended that a declaratory judgment be available as a milder alternative than the injunction to test the constitutionality of state criminal statutes. Pp. 462-473.

3. In determining whether it is appropriate to grant declaratory relief when no state criminal proceeding is pending, it is immaterial whether the attack is made on the constitutionality of a state criminal statute on its face or as applied. Cameron v. Johnson, 390 U.S. 611, distinguished. Pp. 473-475.

459 F.2d 919, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. STEWART, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 475. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 476. REHNQUIST, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 478.

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BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

When a state criminal proceeding under a disputed state criminal statute is pending against a federal plaintiff at the time his federal complaint is filed, Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66 (1971), held, respectively, that, unless bad faith enforcement or other special circumstances are demonstrated, principles of equity, comity, and federalism preclude issuance of a federal injunction restraining enforcement of the criminal statute and, in all but unusual circumstances, a declaratory judgment upon the constitutionality of the statute. This case presents the important question reserved in Samuels v. Mackell, id. at 73-74, whether declaratory relief is precluded when a state prosecution has been threatened, but is not pending, and a showing of bad faith enforcement or other special circumstances has not been made.

Petitioner, and others, filed a complaint in the District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, invoking the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and its jurisdictional implementation, 28 U.S.C. § 1343. The complaint requested a declaratory judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201-2202, that Ga.Code Ann. § 26-1603 (1972)1 was being applied in violation of petitioner's

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First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and an injunction restraining respondents -- the solicitor of the Civil and Criminal Court of DeKalb County, the chief of the DeKalb County Police, the owner of the North DeKalb Shopping Center, and the manager of that shopping center -- from enforcing the statute so as to [94 S.Ct. 1214] interfere with petitioner's constitutionally protected activities.

The parties stipulated to the relevant facts: on October 8, 1970, while petitioner and other individuals were distributing handbills protesting American involvement in Vietnam on an exterior sidewalk of the North DeKalb Shopping Center, shopping center employees asked them to stop handbilling and leave.2 They declined to do so, and police officers were summoned. The officers told them that they would be arrested if they did not stop handbilling. The group then left to avoid arrest. Two days later, petitioner and a companion returned to the shopping center and again began handbilling. The manager of the center called the police, and petitioner and his companion were once again told that failure to stop their handbilling would result in their arrests. Petitioner left to avoid arrest. His companion stayed, however, continued

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handbilling, and was arrested and subsequently arraigned on a charge of criminal trespass in violation of § 26-1503.3 Petitioner alleged in his complaint that, although he desired to return to the shopping center to distribute handbills, he had not done so because of his concern that he, too, would be arrested for violation of § 26-1503; the parties stipulated that, if petitioner returned and refused upon request to stop handbilling, a warrant would be sworn out and he might be arrested and charged with a violation of the Georgia statute.4

After hearing, the District Court denied all relief and dismissed the action, finding that "no meaningful contention can be made that the state has [acted] or will in the future act in bad faith," and therefore "the rudiments of an active controversy between the parties . . . [are] lacking." 334 F.Supp. 1386, 1389-1390 (1971). Petitioner appealed5 only from the denial of declaratory relief.6 The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, one judge concurring in the result, affirmed the District Court's

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judgment refusing declaratory relief.7 Becker v. Thompson, 459 F.2d 919 (1972). [94 S.Ct. 1215] The court recognized that the holdings of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37(1971), and Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66 (1971), were expressly limited to situations where state prosecutions were pending when the federal action commenced, but was of the view that Younger v. Harris "made it clear beyond peradventure that irreparable injury must be measured by bad faith harassment and such test must be applied to a request for injunctive relief against threatened state court criminal prosecution" as well as against a pending prosecution; and, furthermore, since the opinion in Samuels v. Mackell reasoned that declaratory relief would normally disrupt the state criminal justice system in the manner of injunctive relief, it followed that "the same test of bad

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faith harassment is prerequisite . . . for declaratory relief in a threatened prosecution." 459 F.2d at 922. A petition for rehearing en banc was denied, three judges dissenting. 463 F.2d 1338 (1972).8

We granted certiorari, 410 U.S. 953 (1973), and now reverse.

I

At the threshold, we must consider whether petitioner presents an "actual controversy," a requirement imposed by Art. III of the Constitution and the express terms of the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201.9

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Unlike three of the appellees in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. at 41, petitioner has alleged threats of prosecution that cannot be characterized as "imaginary or speculative," id. at 42. He has been twice warned to stop handbilling that he claims is constitutionally protected, and has been told by the police that, if he again handbills at the shopping center and disobeys a warning to stop, he will likely be prosecuted. The prosecution of petitioner's handbilling companion is ample demonstration that petitioner's concern with arrest has not [94 S.Ct. 1216] been "chimerical," Poe v. Ullman, 367 U.S. 497, 508 (1961). In these circumstances, it is not necessary that petitioner first expose himself to actual arrest or prosecution to be entitled to...

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