Griffin v. Breckenridge

Decision Date07 June 1971
Docket NumberNo. 144,144
PartiesEugene GRIFFIN et al., Petitioners, v. Lavon BRECKENRIDGE et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Petitioners, Negro citizens of Mississippi, filed a damages action under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3), charging that respondents, white citizens of Mississippi, conspired to assault petitioners, who were passengers 'travelling upon the federal, state, and local highways' in an automobile driven by one Grady, a citizen of Tennessee, for the purpose of preventing them 'and other Negro-Americans, through * * * force, violence and intimidation, from seeking the equal protection of the laws and from enjoying the equal rights, privileges and immunities of citizens under the laws of the United States and the State of Mississippi,' including rights to free speech, assembly, association, and movement, and the right not to be enslaved. The complaint alleged that pursuant to the conspiracy respondents, mistakenly believing Grady to be a civil rights worker, blocked the travellers' passage on the public highways, forced them from the car, held them at bay with firearms, and amidst threats of murder clubbed them, inflicting serious physical injury. Section 1985(3) provides: 'If two or more persons * * * conspire or go in disguise on the highway or on the premises of another, for the purpose of depriving * * * any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws (and) in any case of conspiracy set forth in this section, if one or more persons engaged therein do * * * any act in furtherance of the object of such conspiracy, whereby another is injured * * * or deprived of * * * any right or privilege of a citizen of the United States, the party so injured or deprived' may have a cause of action for damages against the conspirators. The District Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a cause of action, relying on Collins v. Hardyman, 341 U.S. 651, 71 S.Ct. 937, 95 L.Ed. 1253, where the Court in order to avoid difficult constitutional questions, in effect construed § 1985(3) to reach only conspiracies under color of state law. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Held:

1. Sec. 1985(3) does not require state action but reaches private conspiracies, such as the one alleged in the complaint here, that are aimed at invidiously discriminatory deprivation of the equal enjoyment of rights secured to all by law, as is clearly manifested by the wording and legislative history of the statute and companion statutory provisions, and the constitutional impediments that influenced the Court's construction of the statute in Collins, supra, as is clear from more recent decisions, simply do not exist. Pp. 95—103.

2. Congress had the constitutional authority to reach a private conspiracy of the sort alleged in the complaint in this case both under § 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment and under its power to protect the right of interstate travel. Pp. 104—106.

410 F.2d 817, reversed and remanded.

Stephen J. Pollak, Washington, D.C., for the petitioners.

Lawrence G. Wallace, Washington, D.C., for United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

W. D. Moore, Philadelphia, Miss., for respondents.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

This litigation began when the petitioners filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, seeking compensatory and punitive damages and alleging, in substantial part, as follows:

'2. The plaintiffs are Negro citizens of the United States and residents of Kemper County, Mississippi. * * * '3. The defendants, Lavon Breckenridge and James Calvin Breckenridge, are white adult citizens of the United States residing in DeKalb, Kemper County, Mississippi.

'4. On July 2, 1966, the * * * plaintiffs * * * were passengers in an automobile belonging to and operated by R. G. Grady of Memphis, Tennessee. They were travelling upon the federal, state and local highways in and about DeKalb, Mississippi, performing various errands and visiting friends.

'5. On July 2, 1966 defendants, acting under a mistaken belief that R. G. Grady was a worker for Civil Rights for Negroes, wilfully and maliciously conspired, planned, and agreed to block the passage of said plaintiffs in said automobile upon the public highways, to stop and detain them and to assault, beat and injure them with deadly weapons. Their purpose was to prevent said plaintiffs and other Negro-Americans, through such force, violence and intimidation, from seeking the equal protection of the laws and from enjoying the equal rights, privileges and immunities of citizens under the laws of the United States and the State of Mississippi, including but not limited to their rights to freedom of speech, movement, association and assembly; their right to petition their government for redress of their grievances; their rights to be secure in their persons and their homes; and their rights not to be enslaved nor deprived of life and liberty other than by due process of law.

'6. Pursuant to their conspiracy, defendants drove their truck into the path of Grady's automobile and blocked its passage over the public road. Both defendants then forced Grady and said plaintiffs to get out of Grady's automobile and prevented said plaintiffs from escaping while defendant James Calvin Breckenridge clubbed Grady with a blackjack, pipe or other kind of club by pointing firearms at said plaintiffs and uttering threats to kill and injure them if defendants' orders were not obeyed, thereby terrorizing them to the utmost degree and depriving them of their liberty.

'7. Pursuant to their conspiracy, defendants wilfully, intentionally, and maliciously menaced and assaulted each of the said plaintiffs by pointing firearms and wielding deadly blackjacks, pipes or other kind of clubs, while uttering threats to kill and injure said plaintiffs, causing them to become stricken with fear of immediate injury and death and to suffer extreme terror, mental anguish, and emotional and physical distress.

'8. Pursuant to defendants' conspiracy, defendant James Calvin Breckenridge then wilfully, intentionally and maliciously clubbed each of said plaintiffs on and about the head, severely injuring all of them, while both defendants continued to assault said plaintiffs and prevent their escape by pointing their firearms at them.

* * * * * *

'12. By their conspiracy and acts pursuant thereto, the defendants have wilfully and maliciously, directly and indirectly, intimidated and prevented the * * * plaintiffs * * * and other Negro-Americans from enjoying and exercising their rights, privileges and immunities as citizens of the United States and the State of Mississippi, including but not limited to, their rights to freedom of speech, movement, association and assembly; the right to petition their government for redress of grievances; their right to be secure in their person; their right not to be enslaved nor deprived of life, liberty or property other than by due process of law, and their rights to travel the public highways without restraint in the same terms as white citizens in Kemper County, Mississippi * * *.'

The jurisdiction of the federal court was invoked under the language of Rev.Stat. § 1980, 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3), which that provides:

'If two or more persons in any State or Territory conspire or go in disguise on the highway or on the premises of another, for the purpose of depriving either directly or indirectly, any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws (and) in any case of conspiracy set forth in this section, if one or more persons engaged therein do, or cause to be done, any act in furtherance of the object of such conspiracy, whereby another is injured in his person or property, or deprived of having and exercising any right or privilege of a citizen of the United States, the party so injured or deprived may have an action for the recovery of damages, occasioned by such injury or deprivation, against any one or more of the conspirators.'

The District Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a cause of action, relying on the authority of this Court's opinion in Collins v. Hardyman, 341 U.S. 651, 71 S.Ct. 937, 95 L.Ed. 1253, which in effect construed the above language of § 1985(3) as reaching only conspiracies under color of state law. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the judgment of dismissal. 410 F.2d 817. Judge Goldberg's thorough opinion for that court expressed 'serious doubts' as to the 'continued vitality' of Collins v. Hardyman, id., at 823, and stated that 'it would not surprise us if Collins v. Hardyman were disapproved and if § 1985(3) were held to embrace private conspiracies to interfere with rights of national citizenship,' id., at 825—826 (footnote omitted), but concluded that '(s)ince we may not adopt what the Supreme Court has expressly rejected, we obediently abide the mandate in Collins,' id., at 826—827. We granted certiorari, 397 U.S. 1074, 90 S.Ct. 1525, 25 L.Ed.2d 808, to consider questions going to the scope and constitutionality of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3).

I

Collins v. Hardyman was decided 20 years ago. The complaint in that case alleged that the plaintiffs were members of a political club that had scheduled a meeting to adopt a resolution opposing the Marshall Plan, and to send copies of the resolution to appropriate federal officials; that the defendants conspired to deprive the plaintiffs of their rights as citizens of the United States peaceably to assemble and to equal privileges and immunities under the laws of the United States; that, in furtherance of the conspiracy, the defendants proceeded to the meeting site and, by threats and violence, broke up the meeting, thus interfering with the right of the plaintiffs to petition the Government for...

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