443 U.S. 137 (1979), 78-752, Baker v. MCollan

Docket Nº:No. 78-752
Citation:443 U.S. 137, 99 S.Ct. 2689, 61 L.Ed.2d 433
Party Name:Baker v. MCollan
Case Date:June 26, 1979
Court:United States Supreme Court

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443 U.S. 137 (1979)

99 S.Ct. 2689, 61 L.Ed.2d 433




No. 78-752

United States Supreme Court

June 26, 1979

Argued April 23, 1979




Respondent's brother somehow procured a duplicate of respondent's driver's license, except that it bore the brother's picture. The brother was arrested on narcotics charges, booked in respondent's name, and released on bond. An arrest warrant intended for the brother was subsequently issued in respondent's name. Pursuant to that warrant, respondent, over his protest, was taken into custody by the Potter County, Tex., Sheriff's Department and detained in jail for several days before the error was discovered and he was released. Claiming that his detention in jail had deprived him of liberty without due process of law, respondent brought an action in District Court against petitioner sheriff of Potter County and his surety under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which imposes civil liability on any person who, under color of state law, subjects another to the deprivation of rights "secured by the Constitution and laws." The District Court directed a verdict in favor of petitioner and his surety. The Court of Appeals, characterizing respondent's cause of action as a "[§] 1983 false imprisonment action," reversed, holding that respondent was entitled to have his § 1983 claim presented to the jury even though the evidence supported no more than a finding of negligence on petitioner's part.

Held: Respondent failed to satisfy § 1983's threshold requirement that the plaintiff be deprived of a right "secured by the Constitution and laws," and hence had no claim cognizable under § 1983. Pp. 142-147.

(a) Absent an attack on the validity of the warrant under which he was arrested, respondent's complaint is simply that, despite his protests of mistaken identity, he was detained in jail for three days. Whatever claim this situation might give rise to under state tort law, it gives rise to no claim under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. While respondent was deprived of his liberty for three days, it was pursuant to a warrant conforming to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. His detention, therefore, did not amount to a deprivation of liberty without due process of law. Pp. 142-145.

(b) Respondent's innocence of the charge contained in the warrant, while relevant to a tort claim of false imprisonment, is largely irrelevant to his claim of deprivation of liberty without due process of law.

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Given the requirements that an arrest be made only on probable cause and that one detained be accorded a speedy trial, a sheriff executing a valid arrest warrant is not required by the Constitution to investigate independently every claim of innocence, whether the claim is based on mistaken identity or a defense such as lack of requisite intent. Nor is the official maintaining custody of the person named in the warrant required by the Constitution to perform an error-free investigation of such a claim. Pp. 145-146.

(c) The tort of false imprisonment does not become a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment merely because the defendant is a state official. P. 146.

575 F.2d 509, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 147. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 149. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 149.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Last Term, in Procunier v. Navarette, 434 U.S. 555 (1978), we granted certiorari to consider the question whether negligent conduct can form the basis of an award of damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The constitutional violation alleged in Procunier was interference on [99 S.Ct. 2692] the part of prison officials with a prisoner's outgoing mail. The complaint alleged that the prison officials had acted with every conceivable state of mind, from "knowingly" and in "bad faith" to "negligently and inadvertently." We granted certiorari, however, only on the question "[w]hether negligent failure to mail certain of

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a prisoner's outgoing letters states a cause of action under § 1983." 434 U.S. at 559 n. 6.

Following oral argument and briefing on the merits, the Court held that, since the constitutional right allegedly violated had not been authoritatively declared at the time the prison officials acted, the officials were entitled, as a matter of law, to prevail on their claim of qualified immunity. Quoting from Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308, 322 (1975), we observed:

Because [the prison officials] could not reasonably have been expected to be aware of a constitutional right that had not yet been declared, [they] did not act with such disregard for the established law that their conduct "cannot reasonably be characterized as being in good faith."

434 U.S. at 565. It was thus unnecessary to reach the question on which certiorari had been granted.

In the instant case, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit saw the focal issue as whether petitioner Baker, the sheriff of Potter County, Tex., had negligently failed to establish certain identification procedures which would have revealed that respondent was not the man wanted in connection with the drug charges on which he was arrested. Accordingly, it withheld decision until our opinion in Procunier was handed down. Finding no guidance in Procunier on the question whether an allegation of "simple negligence" states a claim for relief under § 1983, the Court of Appeals proceeded to answer that question affirmatively, holding that respondent was entitled to have his § 1983 claim presented to the jury even though the evidence supported no more than a finding of negligence on the part of Sheriff Baker. We granted certiorari. 439 U.S. 1114 (1979).

Having been around this track once before in Procunier, supra, we have come to the conclusion that the question whether an allegation of simple negligence is sufficient to state a cause of action under § 1983 is more elusive than it appears at first blush. It may well not be susceptible of a uniform

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answer across the entire spectrum of conceivable constitutional violations which might be the subject of a § 1983 action. In any event, before the relationship between the defendant's state of mind and his liability under § 1983 can be meaningfully explored, it is necessary to isolate the precise constitutional violation with which he is charged. For § 1983 imposes civil liability only upon one

who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws. . . .

The first inquiry in any 1983 suit, therefore, is whether the plaintiff has been deprived of a right "secured by the Constitution and laws." If there has been no such deprivation, the state of mind of the defendant is wholly immaterial.1 We think that respondent has failed to satisfy this threshold requirement of § 1983, and thus defer once again consideration of the question whether simple negligence can give rise to § 1983 liability.


Leonard McCollan and respondent Linnie Carl McCollan are brothers. Leonard somehow procured a duplicate of Linnie's driver's [99 S.Ct. 2693] license, identical to the original in every respect except that, as the Court of Appeals put it, "Leonard's picture graced it instead of Linnie's." McCollan v. Tate, 575 F.2d 509, 511 (CA5 1978). In October, 1972, Leonard, masquerading as Linnie, was arrested in Potter County on narcotics

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charges. He was booked as Linnie Carl McCollan, signed various documents as Linnie Carl McCollan, and was released on bail as Linnie Carl McCollan. Leonard's bondsman sought and received an order allowing him to surrender his principal and a warrant was issued for the arrest of "Linnie Carl McCollan."

On December 26, 1972, Linnie was stopped in Dallas for running a red light. A routine warrant check revealed that Linnie Carl McCollan was wanted in Potter County, and respondent was taken into custody over his protests of mistaken identification. The Dallas Police Department contacted the Potter County Sheriff's Department, compared the identifying information on respondent's driver's license with that contained in the Potter County arrest records, and understandably concluded that they had their man. On December 30, Potter County deputies took custody of respondent and placed him in the Potter County Jail in Amarillo. He remained there until January 2, 1973, when officials compared his appearance against a file photograph of the wanted man and, recognizing their error, released him.

Respondent brought this damages action "pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and . . . [§] 1983." App. 6. After each party had rested his case, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas directed a verdict in favor of Sheriff Baker and his surety, Transamerica Insurance Co., without articulating its reasons. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. Characterizing respondent's cause of action as a " [§] 1983 false imprisonment action," the Court of Appeals determined that respondent had made out a prima facie case by showing (1) intent to confine, (2) acts resulting in confinement, and (3) consciousness of the victim of confinement or resulting harm. The question in the court's view thus became whether Sheriff Baker was entitled to the defense of qualified immunity, which, in turn, depended on...

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