Screws v. United States

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation65 S.Ct. 1031,325 U.S. 91,162 A.L.R. 1330,89 L.Ed. 1495
Docket NumberNo. 42,42
Decision Date07 May 1945

325 U.S. 91
65 S.Ct. 1031
89 L.Ed. 1495
SCREWS et al.



No. 42.
Argued Oct. 20, 1944.
Decided May 7, 1945.

Page 92

Mr. James F. Kemp, of Atlanta, Ga., for petitioners.

Mr. Charles Fahy, Sol. Gen., of Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the following opinion, in which the CHIEF JUSTICE, Mr. Justice BLACK and Mr. Justice REED, concur.

This case involves a shocking and revolting episode in law enforcement. Petitioner Screws was sheriff of Baker County, Georgia. He enlisted the assistance of petitioner Jones, a policeman, and petitioner Kelley, a special deputy, in arresting Robert Hall, a citizen of the United States and of Georgia. The arrest was made late at night at Hall's home on a warrant charging Hall with theft of a tire. Hall, a young negro about thirty years of age, was handcuffed and taken by car to the court house. As Hall alighted from the car at the court house square, the three petitioners began beating him with their fists and with a solid-bar blackjack about eight inches long and weighing two pounds. They claimed Hall had reached for a gun and had used insulting language as he alighted from the

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car. But after Hall, still handcuffed, had been knocked to the ground they continued to beat him from fifteen to thirty minutes until he was unconscious. Hall was then dragged feet first through the court house yard into the jail and thrown upon the floor dying. An ambulance was called and Hall was removed to a hospital where he died within the hour and without regaining consciousness. There was evidence that Screws held a grudge against Hall and had threatened to 'get' him.

An indictment was returned against petitioners—one count charging a violation of § 20 of the Criminal Code, 18 U.S.C. § 52, 18 U.S.C.A. § 52, and another charging a conspiracy to violate § 20 contrary to § 37 of the Criminal Code, 18 U.S.C. § 88, 18 U.S.C.A. § 88. Sec. 20 provides:

'Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, will-fully subjects, or causes to be subjected, any inhabitant of any State, Territory, or District to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States, or to different punishments, pains, or penalties, on account of such inhabitant being an alien, or by reason of his color, or race, than are prescribed for the punishment of citizens, shall be fined not more than $1,000, or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.'

The indictment charged that petitioners, acting under color of the laws of Georgia, 'willfully' caused Hall to be deprived of 'rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected' to him by the Fourteenth Amendment—the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law; the right to be tried, upon the charge on which he was arrested, by due process of law and if found guilty to be punished in accordance with the laws of Georgia; that is to say that petitioners 'unlawfully and wrong-fully did assault, strike and beat the said Robert Hall about the head with human fists and a blackjack causing injuries' to Hall 'which were the proximate and immediate cause

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of his death.' A like charge was made in the conspiracy count.

The case was tried to a jury.1 The court charged the jury that due process of law gave one charged with a crime the right to be tried by a jury and sentenced by a court. On the question of intent it charged that '* * * if these defendants, without its being necessary to make the arrest effectual or necessary to their own personal protection, beat this man, assaulted him or killed him while he was under arrest, then they would be acting illegally under color of law, as stated by this statute, and would be depriving the prisoner of certain constitutional rights guaranteed to him by the Constitution of the United States and consented to by the State of Georgia.'

The jury returned a verdict of guilty and a fine and imprisonment on each count was imposed. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of conviction, one judge dissenting. 5 Cir., 140 F.2d 662. The case is here on a petition for a writ of certiorari which we granted because of the importance in the administration of th criminal laws of the questions presented. 322 U.S. 718, 64 S.Ct. 946, 88 L.Ed. 1558.

I. We are met at the outset with the claim that § 20 is unconstitutional, in so far as it makes criminal acts in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The argument runs as follows: It is true that this Act as construed in United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 328, 61 S.Ct. 1031, 1044, 85 L.Ed. 1368, was upheld in its application to certain ballot box frauds committed by state officials. But in that case the constitutional rights protected were the rights to vote

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specifically guaranteed by Art. I, § 2 and § 4 of the Constitution. Here there is no ascertainable standard of guilt. There have been conflicting views in the Court as to the proper construction of the due process clause. The majority have quite consistently construed it in broad general terms. Thus it was stated in Twining v. New Jersey, 211 U.S. 78, 101, 29 S.Ct. 14, 20, 53 L.Ed. 97, that due process requires that 'no change in ancient procedure can be made which disregards those fundamental principles, to be ascertained from time to time by judicial action, which have relation to process of law, and protect the citizen in his private right, and guard him against the arbitrary action of government.' In Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 105, 54 S.Ct. 330, 332, 78 L.Ed. 674, 90 A.L.R. 575, it was said that due process prevents state action which 'offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.' The same standard was expressed in Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 325, 58 S.Ct. 149, 152, 82 L.Ed. 288, in terms of a 'scheme of ordered liberty.' And the same idea was recently phrased as follows: 'The phrase formulates a concept less rigid and more fluid than those envisaged in other specific and particular provisions of the Bill of Rights. Its application is less a matter of rule. Asserted denial is to be tested by an appraisal of the totality of facts in a given case. That which may, in one setting, constitute a denial of fundamental fairness, shocking to the universal sense of justice, may, in other circumstances, and in the light of other considerations, fall short of such denial.' Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, 462, 62 S.Ct. 1252, 1256, 86 L.Ed. 1595.

It is said that the Act must be read as if it contained those broad and fluid definitions of due process and that if it is so read it provides no ascertainable standard of guilt. It is pointed out that in United States v. L. Cohen Grocery Co., 255 U.S. 81, 89, 41 S.Ct. 298, 300, 65 L.Ed. 516, 14 A.L.R. 1045, an Act of Congress was struck down, the enforcement of which would have been 'the exact equivalent of an effort to carry out a statute

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which in terms merely penalized and punished all acts detrimental to the public interest when unjust and unreasonable in the estimation of the court and jury.' In that case the act declared criminal was the making of 'any unjust or unreasonable rate or charge in handling or dealing in or with any necessaries.' 255 U.S. at page 86, 41 S.Ct. at page 299, 65 L.Ed. 516, 14 A.L.R. 1045. The Act contained no definition of an 'unjust or unreasonable rate' nor did it refer to any source where the measure of 'unjust or unreasonable' could be ascertained. In the instant case the decisions of the courts are, to be sure, a source of reference for ascertaining the specific content of the concept of due process. But even so the Act would incorporate by reference a large body of changing and uncertain law. That law is not always reducible to specific rules, is expressible only in general terms, and turns many times on the facts of a particular case. Accordingly, it is argued that such a body of legal principles lacks the basic specificity necessary for criminal statutes under our system of government. Congress did not define what it desired to punish but referred the citizen to a comprehensive law library in order to ascertain w at acts were prohibited. To enforce such a statute would be like sanctioning the practice of Caligula who 'published the law, but it was written in a very small hand, and posted up in a corner, so that no one could make a copy of it.' Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, p. 278.

The serious character of that challenge to the constitutionality of the Act is emphasized if the customary standard of guilt for statutory crimes is taken. As we shall see specific intent is at times required. Holmes, The Common Law, p. 66 et seq. But the general rule was stated in Ellis v. United States, 206 U.S. 246, 257, 27 S.Ct. 600, 602, 51 L.Ed. 1047, 11 Ann.Cas. 589, as follows: 'If a man intentionally adopts certain conduct in certain circumstances known to him, and that conduct is forbidden by the law under those circumstances, he intentionally breaks the law in the only sense in which the law ever considers intent.' And see Horning v. District of

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Columbia, 254 U.S. 135, 137, 41 S.Ct. 53, 54, 65 L.Ed. 185; Nash v. United States, 229 U.S. 373, 377, 33 S.Ct. 780, 781, 57 L.Ed. 1232. Under that test a local law enforcement officer violates § 20 and commits a federal offense for which he can be sent to the penitentiary if he does an act which some court later holds deprives a person of due process of law. And he is a criminal though his motive was pure and though his purpose was unrelated to the disregard of any constitutional guarantee. The treacherous ground on which state officials—police, prosecutors, legislators, and judges—would walk is indicated by the character and closeness of...

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