444 U.S. 277 (1980), 78-1268, Martinez v. California

Docket Nº:No. 78-1268
Citation:444 U.S. 277, 100 S.Ct. 553, 62 L.Ed.2d 481
Party Name:Martinez v. California
Case Date:January 15, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 277

444 U.S. 277 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 553, 62 L.Ed.2d 481

Martinez

v.

California

No. 78-1268

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 15, 1980

Argued November 5, 1979

APPEAL FROM THE COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA,

FOURTH APPELLATE DISTRICT

Syllabus

Appellants' decedent, a 15-year-old girl, was murdered by a parolee five months after he was released from prison despite his history as a sex offender. Appellants brought an action in a California court under state law and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that appellee state officials, by their action in releasing the parolee, subjected the decedent to a deprivation of her life without due process of law, and were therefore liable in damages for the harm caused by the parolee. The trial court sustained a demurrer to the complaint. The California Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that a California statute granting public employees absolute immunity from liability for any injury resulting from parole release determinations provided appellees with a complete defense to appellants' state law claims, and that appellees enjoyed quasi-judicial immunity from liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Held:

1. The California immunity statute is not unconstitutional when applied to defeat a tort claim arising under state law. Pp. 280-283.

(a) The statute, which merely provides a defense to potential state tort law liability, did not deprive appellants' decedent of her life without due process of law because it condoned a parole decision that led indirectly to her death. A legislative decision that has an incremental impact on the probability that death will result in any given situation cannot be characterized as state action depriving a person of life just because it may set in motion a chain of events that ultimately leads to the random death of an innocent bystander. P. 281.

(b) Even if the statute can be characterized as a deprivation of property, the State's interest in fashioning its own rules of tort law is paramount to any discernible federal interest, except perhaps an interest in protecting the individual citizen from wholly arbitrary or irrational state action. The statute is not irrational, because the California Legislature could reasonably conclude that judicial review of parole decisions "would inevitably inhibit the exercise of discretion," and that this inhibiting effect could impair the State's ability to implement a parole program designed to promote rehabilitation of inmates,

Page 278

as well as. security within prisons by holding out a promise of potential rewards. Pp. 281-283.

2. Appellants did not allege a claim for relief under federal law. Pp. 283-285.

(a) The Fourteenth Amendment protected appellants' decedent only from deprivation by the State of life without due process of law, and although the decision to release the parolee from prison was action by the State, the parolee's action five months later cannot be fairly characterized as state action. Pp. 284-285.

(b) Regardless of whether, as a matter of state tort law, the parole board either had a "duty" to avoid harm to the parolee's victim or proximately caused her death, appellees did not "deprive" appellants' decedent of life within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. P. 285.

(c) Under the particular circumstances where the parolee was in no sense an agent of the parole board, and the board was not aware that appellants' decedent, as distinguished from the public at large, faced any special danger, appellants' decedent's death was too remote consequence of appellees' action to hold them responsible under § 1983. P. 285.

[100 S.Ct. 556] 85 Cal.App.3d 430, 149 Cal.Rptr. 519, affirmed. STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 279

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The two federal questions that appellants ask us to decide are (1) whether the Fourteenth Amendment invalidates a California statute granting absolute immunity to public employees who make parole release determinations, and (2) whether such officials are absolutely immune from liability in an action brought under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.1 We agree with the California Court of Appeal that the state statute is valid when applied to claims arising under state law, and we conclude that appellants have not alleged a claim for relief under federal law.

The case arises out of the murder of a 15-year-old girl by a parolee. Her survivors brought this action in a California court claiming that the state officials responsible for the parole release decision are liable in damages for the harm caused by the parolee.

The complaint alleged that the parolee, one Thomas, was convicted of attempted rape in December, 1969. He was first committed to a state mental hospital as a "Mentally Disordered Sex Offender not amenable to treatment," and thereafter sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 1 to 20 years, with a recommendation that he not be paroled. Nevertheless, five years later, appellees decided to parole Thomas to the care of his mother. They were fully informed about his history, his propensities, and the likelihood that he would commit another violent crime. Moreover, in making their release determination, they failed to observe certain "requisite formalities." Five months after his release, Thomas tortured

Page 280

and killed appellants' decedent. We assume, as the complaint alleges, that appellees knew, or should have known, that the release of Thomas created a clear and present danger that such an incident would occur. Their action is characterized not only as negligent, but also as reckless, willful, wanton and malicious.2 Appellants prayed for actual and punitive damages of $2 million.

The trial judge sustained a demurrer to the complaint, and his order was upheld on appeal. 85 Cal.App.3d 430, 149 Cal.Rptr. 519 (1978). After the California Supreme Court denied appellants' petition for a hearing, we noted probable jurisdiction. 441 U.S. 960.

I

Section 845.8(a) of the Cal.Gov't Code Ann. (West Supp. 1979) provides:

Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for:

(a) Any injury resulting from determining whether to parole or release a prisoner or from determining the terms and conditions of his parole or release or from determining whether to revoke his parole or release.

The California courts held that this statute provided appellees with a complete defense [100 S.Ct. 557] to appellants' state law claims.3 They considered and rejected the contention that the immunity

Page 281

statute as so construed violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.4

Like the California courts, we cannot accept the contention that this statute deprived Thomas' victim of her life without due process of law because it condoned a parole decision that led indirectly to her death. The statute neither authorized nor immunized the deliberate killing of any human being. It is not the equivalent of a death penalty statute which expressly authorizes state agents to take a person's life after prescribed procedures have been observed. This statute merely provides a defense to potential state tort law liability. At most, the availability of such a defense may have encouraged members of the parole board to take somewhat greater risks of recidivism in exercising their authority to release prisoners than they otherwise might. But the basic risk that repeat offenses may occur is always present in any parole system. A legislative decision that has an incremental impact on the probability that death will result in any given situation -- such as setting the speed limit at 55-miles-per-hour instead of 45 -- cannot be characterized as state action depriving a person of life just because it may set in motion a chain of events that ultimately leads to the random death of an innocent bystander.

Nor can the statute be characterized as an invalid deprivation of property. Arguably, the cause of action for wrongful death that the State has created is a species of "property"

Page 282

protected by the Due Process Clause. On that hypothesis, the immunity statute could be viewed as depriving the plaintiffs of that property interest insofar as they seek to assert a claim against parole officials.5 But even if one characterizes the immunity defense as a statutory deprivation, it would remain true that the States interest...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP