454 U.S. 90 (1981), 81-271, California ex rel. Cooper v. Mitchell Brothers Santa Ana Theater

Docket Nº:No. 81-271
Citation:454 U.S. 90, 102 S.Ct. 172, 70 L.Ed.2d 262
Party Name:California ex rel. Cooper v. Mitchell Brothers Santa Ana Theater
Case Date:November 30, 1981
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 90

454 U.S. 90 (1981)

102 S.Ct. 172, 70 L.Ed.2d 262

California ex rel. Cooper

v.

Mitchell Brothers Santa Ana Theater

No. 81-271

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 30, 1981

ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL

OF CALIFORNIA, FOURTH APPELLATE DISTRICT

Syllabus

Held: A city, in a public nuisance abatement action against a motion picture theater, is not required, as a matter of constitutional law, to establish the obscenity of the motion pictures at issue by proof "beyond a reasonable doubt." While a State may require such proof in such a case, that choice is solely a matter of state law, and is not required by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Although this Court has held that the "clear and convincing" standard or one of its variants is the appropriate standard of proof in certain types of civil cases, it has never required application of the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard in a civil case, as opposed to a criminal prosecution.

Certiorari granted; 114 Cal.pp. 3d 923, 171 Cal.Rptr. 85, reversed and remanded.

Per curiam opinion.

PER CURIAM.

The petition for certiorari is granted limited to Question 2 presented in the petition, namely, whether a city, in a public nuisance abatement action brought against a motion picture theater, must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the motion pictures at issue are obscene.1

The Santa Ana City Attorney brought this action against respondents to abate a public nuisance pursuant to Cal.Civ.Proc.Code Ann. § 731 (West 1980).2 The complaint

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alleged that numerous films shown by the respondents were obscene, and thus constituted a public nuisance as defined by Cal.Civ.Code Ann. §§ 3479, 3480 (West 1970).3 The complaint sought, inter alia, court approval of a resolution passed by the Santa Ana City Council revoking all [102 S.Ct. 173] of respondents' operating licenses and permits, a permanent injunction forbidding respondents to show the films named in the complaint, and a 1-year closure of respondents' theater.

The trial court determined that the complaint presented both equitable and legal issues, and ordered that a jury trial be held on the issues of obscenity, public nuisance, and damages prior to resolution of the equitable issues by the court. The jury trial was divided into liability and damages stages. After the evidence pertaining to obscenity and public nuisance had been presented, the jury was instructed that they could find the films at issue to be obscene only if they were persuaded of such "beyond a reasonable doubt." The jury found 11 films obscene, 4 not obscene, and was unable to reach a verdict on 2 others.

Following a jury determination of damages, the court issued

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findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect to the equitable issues. The court found, independently from the jury verdict and based upon its own viewing, that the same 11 films were obscene beyond a reasonable doubt as the term obscene is defined in Cal.Penal Code Ann. § 311(a) (West 1970).4 There were cross-appeals, the city asserting, among other things, that the trial court erred in imposing the "beyond reasonable doubt" burden of proof. The California Court of Appeal affirmed on this issue. Relying on this Court's observation that

the regulation of a communicative activity such as the exhibition of motion pictures must adhere to more narrowly drawn procedures than is necessary for the abatement of an ordinary nuisance,

Vance v. Universal Amusement Co., 445 U.S. 308, 315 (1980) (per curiam), and JUSTICE BRENNAN's statement that

the hazards to First Amendment freedoms inhering in the regulation of obscenity require that, even in . . . a civil proceeding, the State comply with the more exacting standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,

McKinney v. Alabama, 424 U.S. 669, 683-684 (1976) (concurring opinion), the court concluded that "one of the required procedures is that obscenity be proved beyond a reasonable doubt."5 People ex rel. Gow v. Mitchell Bros.' Santa Ana Theater, 114 Cal.App.3d 923, 936, 171 Cal.Rptr. 85, 93 (1981). We reverse.

The purpose of a standard of proof is

to instruct the factfinder concerning the degree of confidence our society

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thinks he should have in the correctness of factual conclusions for a particular type of adjudication.

In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 370 (1970) (Harlan, J., concurring). Three standards of proof are generally recognized, ranging from the "preponderance of the evidence" standard employed in most civil cases to the "clear and convincing"6 standard reserved to protect particularly important interests in a limited number of civil cases, to the requirement that guilt be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt" in a criminal prosecution. See Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418, 423 424 (1979). This Court has, on several occasions, held that the "clear [102 S.Ct. 174] and convincing" standard or one of its variants is the appropriate standard of proof in a particular civil case. See Addington v. Texas, supra, at 431 (civil commitment); Rosenbloom v. Metromedia Inc., 403 U.S. 29, 52 (1971) (libel); Woodby v. INS, 385 U.S. 276, 285 (1966) (deportation); Chaunt v. United States, 364 U.S. 350, 353 (1960) (denaturalization); Schneiderman v. United States, 320 U.S. 118, 159 (1943) (denaturalization). However, the Court has never required the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard to be applied in a civil case.

This unique standard of proof, not prescribed or defined in the Constitution, is regarded as a critical part of the "moral force of the criminal law," In re Winship, 397 U.S. at 364, and we should hesitate to apply it too broadly or casually in noncriminal cases.

Addington v. Texas, supra, at 428.

Thus, while a State may require proof beyond reasonable doubt in an obscenity case, that choice is solely a matter of state law. The First and Fourteenth Amendments do not

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require such a standard. The judgment of the Court of Appeal is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

So ordered.

BRENNAN, J., dissenting

JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL joins, dissenting.

Although I adhere to my view that a State may not constitutionally suppress sexually oriented films except perhaps as necessary to shield juveniles or unconsenting adults, see, e.g., Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, 413 U.S. 49, 73 (1973) (BRENNAN, J., dissenting), since the State alone has petitioned for review in this case, I concur in limiting the grant of certiorari to consideration of whether the State must demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that communication it seeks to suppress is obscene. I share, however, JUSTICE STEVENS' concern, post at 97, that we lack the requisite assurance of our jurisdiction to consider this question, and join his suggestion that we adhere to our ordinary practice of denying the writ or of remanding to the state court for a determination of whether the decision below rests on a federal or a state ground. California v. Krivda, 409 U.S. 33 (1972).

Alternatively, assuming we have jurisdiction in this case, I dissent from the Court's holding that the First Amendment does not require the State when it seeks to suppress otherwise constitutionally protected material to prove that material obscene beyond a reasonable doubt. My reasons are stated in my concurring opinion in McKinney v. Alabama, 424 U.S. 669, 683-687 (1976).

STEVENS, J., dissenting

JUSTICE STEVENS, dissenting.

Without the benefit of full briefs and arguments, I would not answer the question whether the First Amendment requires that obscenity be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in

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a public nuisance abatement action.1 JUSTICE BRENNAN's opinion in McKinney v. Alabama, 424 U.S. 669, 683 687, in which Justice Stewart and JUSTICE MARSHALL joined, demonstrates the substantiality of the question. It is distressing to find that the Court considers novel questions of this character so easy as not even to merit argument.2 It is also surprising to find the Court reaching out to [102 S.Ct. 175] decide such a question when its jurisdiction to do so is doubtful and when the absence of conflict on the question normally would call for a routine denial of certiorari.

I

In this public nuisance abatement action, the California Superior Court and the California Court of Appeal concluded that obscenity must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. See People ex rel. Gow v. Mitchell Brothers' Santa Ana Theater, 114 Cal.App.3d 923, 935-937, 171 Cal.Rptr. 85, 92-93

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(1981). Without deciding whether the First Amendment imposes any special standard of proof on the censorship of allegedly obscene materials, the Court today opines that proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not constitutionally required. The Court has no...

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