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Mississippi Burning

 

Supreme Court Decision

(U. S. v. Price et al.)

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383 U.S. 787

 

UNITED STATES v. PRICE ET AL.

 

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

 

383 U.S. 787; 86 S. Ct. 1152; 1966 U.S. LEXIS 1963

 

November 9, 1965, Argued

March 28, 1966, Decided

 

COUNSEL: Solicitor General Marshall argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Assistant Attorney General Doar, Louis F. Claiborne and Gerald P. Choppin.


H. C. Mike Watkins argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief were Dennis Goldman, Laurel G. Weir and Herman Alford.

 

JUDGES: Warren, Fortas, Harlan, Brennan, Black, Stewart, Clark, White, Douglas

 

MR. JUSTICE FORTAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

These are direct appeals from the dismissal in part of two indictments returned by the United States Grand Jury for the Southern District of Mississippi. The indictments allege assaults by the accused persons upon the rights of the asserted victims to due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. The indictment in No. 59 charges 18 persons with violations of 18 U. S. C. 241. In No. 60, the same 18 persons are charged with offenses based upon 18 U. S. C. 242. These are among the so-called civil rights statutes which have come to us from Reconstruction days, the period in our history which also produced the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

 

The sole question presented in these appeals is whether the specified statutes make criminal the conduct for which the individuals were indicted. It is an issue of construction, not of constitutional power. We have no doubt of "the power of Congress to enforce by appropriate criminal sanction every right guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." 

 

[The indictment alleges that] on June 21, 1964, Cecil Ray Price, the Deputy Sheriff of Neshoba County, Mississippi, detained Michael Henry Schwerner, James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman in the Neshoba County jail located in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He released them in the dark of that night. He then proceeded by automobile on Highway 19 to intercept his erstwhile wards. He removed the three men from their automobile, placed them in an official automobile of the Neshoba County Sheriff's office, and transported them to a place on an unpaved road.

 

These acts, it is alleged, were part of a plan and conspiracy whereby the three men were intercepted by the 18 defendants, including Deputy Sheriff Price, Sheriff Rainey and Patrolman Willis of the Philadelphia, Mississippi, Police Department. The purpose and intent of the release from custody and the interception, according to the charge, were to "punish" the three men. The defendants, it is alleged, "did wilfully assault, shoot and kill" each of the three. And, the charge continues, the bodies of the three victims were transported by one of the defendants from the rendezvous on the unpaved road to the vicinity of the construction site of an earthen dam approximately five miles southwest of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

 

These are federal and not state indictments. They do not charge as crimes the alleged assaults or murders. The indictments are framed to fit the stated federal statutes, and the question before us is whether the attempt of the draftsman for the Grand Jury in Mississippi has been successful: whether the indictments charge offenses against the various defendants which may be prosecuted under the designated federal statutes.

 

We shall deal first with the indictment in No. 60, based on 242 of the Criminal Code, and then with the indictment in No. 59, under 241. We do this for ease of exposition and because 242 was enacted by the Congress about four years prior to 241. Section 242 was enacted in 1866; 241 in 1870.

 

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I. No. 60.

 

Section 242 defines a misdemeanor, punishable by fine of not more than $ 1,000 or imprisonment for not more than one year, or both. So far as here significant, it provides punishment for "Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects any inhabitant of any State . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States . . . ."

 

The indictment in No. 60 contains four counts, each of which names as defendants the three officials and 15 nonofficial persons. The First Count charges, on the basis of allegations substantially as set forth above, that all of the defendants conspired "to wilfully subject" Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman "to the deprivation of their right, privilege and immunity secured and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States not to be summarily punished without due process of law by persons acting under color of the laws of the State of Mississippi." This is said to constitute a conspiracy to violate 242, and therefore an offense under 18 U. S. C. 371. The latter section, the general conspiracy statute, makes it a crime to conspire to commit any offense against the United States. The penalty for violation is the same as for direct violation of 242 -- that is, it is a misdemeanor.

 

On a motion to dismiss, the District Court sustained this First Count as to all defendants. As to the sheriff, deputy sheriff and patrolman, the court recognized that each was clearly alleged to have been acting "under color of law" as required by 242.As to the private persons, the District Court held that "It is immaterial to the conspiracy that these private individuals were not acting under color of law" because the count charges that they were conspiring with persons who were so acting.  The court necessarily was satisfied that the indictment, in alleging the arrest, detention, release, interception and killing of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, adequately stated as the purpose of the conspiracy, a violation of 242, and that this section could be violated by "wilfully subject[ing the victims] . . . to the deprivation of their right, privilege and immunity" under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

 

No appeal was taken by the defendants from the decision of the trial court with respect to the First Count and it is not before us for adjudication.

 

The Second, Third and Fourth Counts of the indictment in No. 60 charge all of the defendants, not with conspiracy, but with substantive violations of 242. Each of these counts charges that the defendants, acting "under color of the laws of the State of Mississippi," "did wilfully assault, shoot and kill" Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, respectively, "for the purpose and with the intent" of punishing each of the three and that the defendants "did thereby wilfully deprive" each "of rights, privileges and immunities secured and protected by the Constitution and the laws of the United States" -- namely, due process of law.

 

The District Court held these counts of the indictment valid as to the sheriff, deputy sheriff and patrolman. But it dismissed them as against the nonofficial defendants because the counts do not charge that the latter were "officers in fact, or de facto in anything allegedly done by them 'under color of law.'"

 

We note that by sustaining these counts against the three officers, the court again necessarily concluded that an offense under 242 is properly stated by allegations of willful deprivation, under color of law, of life and liberty without due process of law. We agree. No other result would be permissible under the decisions of this Court.

 

 But we cannot agree that the Second, Third or Fourth Counts may be dismissed as against the nonofficial defendants. Section 242 applies only where a person indicted has acted "under color" of law. Private persons, jointly engaged with state officials in the prohibited action, are acting "under color" of law for purposes of the statute. To act "under color" of law does not require that the accused be an officer of the State. It is enough that he is a willful participant in joint activity with the State or its agents.   In the present case, according to the indictment, the brutal joint adventure was made possible by state detention and calculated release of the prisoners by an officer of the State. This action, clearly attributable to the State, was part of the monstrous design described by the indictment. State officers participated in every phase of the alleged venture: the release from jail, the interception, assault and murder. It was a joint activity, from start to finish. Those who took advantage of participation by state officers in accomplishment of the foul purpose alleged must suffer the consequences of that participation. In effect, if the allegations are true, they were participants in official lawlessness, acting in willful concert with state officers and hence under color of law.


Appellees urge that the decision of the District Court was based upon a construction of the indictment to the effect that it did not charge the private individuals with acting "under color" of law. Consequently, they urge us to affirm in No. 60. In any event, they submit, since the trial court's decision was based on the inadequacy of the indictment and not on construction of the statute, we have no jurisdiction to review it on direct appeal. United States v. Swift & Co., 318 U.S. 442. We do not agree. Each count of the indictment specifically alleges that all of the defendants were acting "under color of the laws of the State of Mississippi." The fault lies not in the indictment, but in the District Court's view that the statute requires that each offender be an official or that  he act in an official capacity. We have jurisdiction to consider this statutory question on direct appeal and, as we have shown, the trial court's determination of it is in error. Since each of the private individuals is indictable as a principal acting under color of law, we need not consider whether he might be held to answer as an "aider or abettor" under 18 U. S. C. 2 (1964 ed.), despite omission to include such a charge in the indictment.

 

Accordingly, we reverse the dismissal of the Second, Third and Fourth Counts of the indictment in No. 60 and remand for trial.

 

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II. No. 59.

 

No. 59 charges each of the 18 defendants with a felony -- a violation of 241. This indictment is in one count. It charges that the defendants "conspired together . . . to injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate" Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman "in the free exercise and enjoyment of the right and privilege secured to them by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States not to be deprived of life or liberty without due process of law by persons acting under color of the laws of Mississippi." The indictment alleges that it was the purpose of the conspiracy that Deputy Sheriff Price would release Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman from custody in the Neshoba County jail at such time that Price and the other 17 defendants "could and would intercept" them "and threaten, assault, shoot and kill them." The penalty under 241 is a fine of not more than $ 5,000, or imprisonment for not more than 10 years, or both.

 

Section 241 is a conspiracy statute. It reads as follows:


"If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same; or "If two or more persons go in disguise on the highway, or on the premises of another, with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege so secured --"They shall be fined not more than $ 5,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both."

 

The District Court dismissed the indictment as to all defendants. In effect, although 241 includes rights or privileges secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States without qualification or limitation, the court held that it does not include rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. It will be recalled that in No. 60 the District Court held that 242 included the denial of Fourteenth Amendment rights -- the same right to due process involved in the indictment under 241. Both include rights or privileges secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Neither is qualified or limited. Each includes, presumably, all of the Constitution and laws of the United States. To the reader of the two sections, versed only in the English language, it may seem bewildering that the two sections could be so differently read.

 

But the District Court purported to read the statutes with the gloss of Williams I. In that case, the only case in which this  Court has squarely confronted  the point at issue, the Court did in fact sustain dismissal of an indictment under 241. But it did not, as the District Court incorrectly assumed, hold that 241 is inapplicable to Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Court divided equally on the issue. Four Justices, in an opinion by Mr. Justice Frankfurter, were of the view that 241 "only covers conduct which interferes with rights arising from the substantive powers of the Federal Government" -- rights "which Congress can beyond doubt constitutionally secure against interference by private individuals." 341 U.S., at 73, 77. Four other Justices, in an opinion by MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, found no support for Mr. Justice Frankfurter's view in the language of the section, its legislative history, or its judicial interpretation up to that time. They read the statute as plainly covering conspiracies to injure others in the exercise of Fourteenth Amendment rights. They could see no obstacle to using it to punish deprivations of such rights. Dismissal of the indictment was affirmed because MR. JUSTICE BLACK voted with those who joined Mr. Justice Frankfurter. He did so, however, for an entirely different reason -- that the prosecution was barred by res judicata -- and he expressed no view on the issue whether " 241, as applied, is too vague and uncertain in scope to be consistent with the Fifth Amendment." Williams I thus left the proper construction of 241, as regards its applicability to protect Fourteenth Amendment rights, an open question.

 

In view of the detailed opinions in Williams I, it would be supererogation to track the arguments in all of their intricacy. On the basis of an extensive re-examination of the question, we conclude that the District Court erred; that 241 must be read as it is written -- to reach conspiracies "to injure . . . any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States . . ."; that this language includes rights or privileges protected by the Fourteenth Amendment; that whatever the ultimate coverage of the section may be, it extends to conspiracies otherwise within the scope of the section, participated in by officials alone or in collaboration with private persons; and that the indictment in No. 59 properly charges such a conspiracy in violation of 241. We shall confine ourselves to a review of the major considerations which induce our conclusion.

There is no doubt that the indictment in No. 59 sets forth a conspiracy within the ambit of the Fourteenth Amendment. Like the indictment in No. 60, supra, it alleges that the defendants acted "under color of law" and that the conspiracy included action by the State through its law enforcement officers to punish the alleged victims without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's direct admonition to the States.

 

1. The indictment specifically alleges that the sheriff, deputy sheriff and a patrolman participated in the conspiracy; that it was a part of the "plan and purpose of the conspiracy" that Deputy Sheriff Price, "while having [the three victims] . . . in his custody in the Neshoba County Jail . . . would release them from custody at such time that he [and others of the defendants] . . . could and would intercept [the three victims] . . . and threaten, assault, shoot and kill them."


This is an allegation of state action which, beyond dispute, brings the conspiracy within the ambit of the Fourteenth Amendment. It is an allegation of official, state participation in murder, accomplished by and through its officers with the participation of others. It is an allegation that the State, without the semblance of due process of law as required of it by the Fourteenth Amendment, used its sovereign power and office to release the victims from jail so that they were not charged and tried as required by law, but instead could be intercepted and killed. If the Fourteenth Amendment forbids denial of counsel, it clearly denounces denial of any trial at all. As we have consistently held "The Fourteenth Amendment protects the individual against state action, not against wrongs done by individuals."  In the present case, the participation by law enforcement officers, as  alleged in the indictment, is clearly state action, as we have discussed, and it is therefore within the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment.

 

2. The argument, however, of Mr. Justice Frankfurter's opinion in Williams I, upon which the District Court rests its decision, cuts beneath this. It does not deny that the accused conduct is within the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment, but it contends that in enacting 241, the Congress intended to include only the rights and privileges conferred on the citizen by reason of the "substantive" powers of the Federal Government -- that is, by reason of federal power operating directly upon the citizen and not merely by means of prohibitions of state action. As the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Williams I, relied upon in the opinion below, put it, "the Congress had in mind the federal rights and privileges which appertain to citizens as such and not the general rights extended to all persons by the . . . Fourteenth Amendment."  We do not agree.
 

The language of 241 is plain and unlimited. As we have discussed, its language embraces all of the rights and privileges secured to citizens by all of the Constitution and all of the laws of the United States. There is no indication in the language that the sweep of the section is confined to rights that are conferred by or "flow from" the Federal Government, as distinguished from those secured or confirmed or guaranteed by the Constitution. We agree with the observation of Mr. Justice Holmes in United States v. Mosley, 238 U.S. 383, 387-388, that

 

"The source of this section in the doings of the Ku Klux and the like is obvious and acts of violence obviously were in the mind of Congress. Naturally Congress put forth all its powers. . . . This section dealt with Federal rights and with all Federal rights, and protected them in the lump . . . . [It should not be construed so] as to deprive citizens of the United States of the general protection which on its face 19 [now 241] most reasonably affords."
 
We believe, with Mr. Justice Holmes, that the history of the events from which 241 emerged illuminates the purpose and means of the statute with an unmistakable light. We think that history leaves no doubt that, if we are to give 241 the scope that its origins dictate, we must accord  it a sweep as broad as its language. We are not at liberty to seek ingenious analytical instruments for excluding from its general language the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment -- particularly since the violent denial of legal process was one of the reasons motivating enactment of the section.

 

Section 241 was enacted as part of what came to be known as the Enforcement Act of 1870, 16 Stat. 140. n10 The Act was passed on May 31, 1870, only a few months after ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. In addition to the new 241, it included a re-enactment of a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which is now 242. The intended breadth of 241 is emphasized by contrast with the narrowness of 242 as it then was. n11 Section 242 forbade the deprivation, "under color of any law," of "any right secured or protected by this act." The rights protected by the Act were narrow and specific: "to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property as is enjoyed by white citizens [and to] be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and none other." Act of May 31, 1870, 16, 16 Stat. 144, re-enacting with minor changes Act of April 9, 1866, 1, 14 Stat. 27. Between 1866 and 1870 there was much agitated criticism in the Congress and in the Nation because of the continued denial of rights to Negroes, sometimes accompanied by violent assaults. In response to the demands for more stringent legislation Congress enacted the Enforcement Act of 1870. Congress had before it and re-enacted 242 which was explicitly limited as we have described. At the same time, it included 241 in the Act using broad language to cover not just the rights enumerated in 242, but all rights and privileges under the Constitution and laws of the United States.
 
It was not until the statutory revision of 1874 that the specific enumeration of protected rights was eliminated from 242. The section was then broadened to include as wide a range of rights as 241 already did: "any rights, privileges, or immunities, secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States." The substantial change thus effected was made with the customary stout assertions of the codifiers that they had merely clarified and reorganized without changing substance. n12 Section 241 was left essentially unchanged, and neither in the 1874 revision nor in any subsequent re-enactment has there been the slightest indication of a congressional intent to narrow or limit the original broad scope of 241. It is clear, therefore, that 241, from original enactment through subsequent codifications, was intended to deal, as Mr. Justice Holmes put it, with conspiracies to interfere with "Federal rights and with all Federal rights." We find no basis whatsoever for a judgment of Solomon which would give to the statute less than its words command.

 

The  purpose and scope of the 1866 and 1870 enactments must be viewed against the events and passions of the time.The Civil War had ended in April 1865. Relations between Negroes and whites were increasingly turbulent. Congress had taken control of the entire governmental process in former Confederate States. It had declared the governments in 10 "unreconstructed" States to be illegal and had set up federal military administrations in their place. Congress refused to seat representatives from these States until they had adopted constitutions guaranteeing Negro suffrage, and had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment. Constitutional conventions were called in 1868. Six of the 10 States fulfilled Congress' requirements in 1868, the other four by 1870.
 
For a few years "radical" Republicans dominated the governments of the Southern States and Negroes played a substantial political role. But countermeasures were swift and violent. The Ku Klux Klan was organized by southern whites in 1866 and a similar organization appeared with the romantic title of the Knights of the White Camellia. In 1868 a wave of murders and assaults was launched including assassinations designed to keep Negroes from the polls. The States themselves were helpless, despite the resort by some of them to extreme measures such as making it legal to hunt down and shoot any disguised man. 

 

Within the Congress pressures mounted in the period between the end of the war and 1870 for drastic measures. A few  months after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865. Congress, on April 9, 1866, enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which, as we have described, included 242 in its originally narrow form. On June 13, 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment was proposed, and it was ratified in July 1868. In February 1869 the Fifteenth Amendment was proposed, and it was ratified in February 1870. On May 31, 1870, the Enforcement Act of 1870 was enacted.

 

In this context, it is hardly conceivable that Congress intended 241 to apply only to a narrow and relatively unimportant category of rights. We cannot doubt that the purpose and effect of 241 was to reach assaults upon rights under the entire Constitution, including the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and not merely under part of it.

 

This is fully attested by the only statement explanatory of 241 in the recorded congressional proceedings relative to its enactment. We refer to the speech of Senator Pool of North Carolina who introduced the provisions as an amendment to the Enforcement Act of 1870. The Senator's remarks are printed in full in the Appendix to this opinion. He urged that the section was needed in order to punish invasions of the newly adopted Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. He acknowledged that the States as such were beyond the reach of the punitive process, and that the legislation must therefore operate upon individuals. He made it clear that "It matters not whether those individuals be officers or whether they are acting upon their own responsibility." We find no evidence whatever that Senator Pool intended that 241 should not cover violations of Fourteenth Amendment rights, or that it should not include state action or actions by state officials.

 

We conclude, therefore, that it is incumbent upon us to read 241 with full credit to its language. Nothing in the prior decisions of this Court or of other courts which have considered the matter stands in the way of that conclusion.
 

The present application of the statutes at issue does not raise fundamental questions of federal-state relationships. We are here concerned with allegations which squarely and indisputably involve state action in direct violation of the mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment -- that no State shall deprive any person of life or liberty without due process of law. This is a direct, traditional concern of the Federal Government. It is an area in which the federal interest has existed for at least a century, and in which federal participation has intensified as part of a renewed emphasis upon civil rights. Even as recently as 1951, when Williams I was decided, the federal role in the establishment and vindication of fundamental rights -- such as the freedom to travel, nondiscriminatory access to public areas and nondiscriminatory educational facilities -- was neither as pervasive nor as intense as it is today. Today, a decision interpreting a federal law in accordance with its historical design, to punish denials by state action of constitutional rights of the person can hardly be regarded as adversely affecting "the wise adjustment between State responsibility and national control . . . ."  In any event, the problem, being statutory and not constitutional, is ultimately, as it was in the beginning, susceptible of congressional disposition.

 

Reversed and remanded.   

 

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[Freedom Summer] [Chaney, Goodman & Schwerner] [James Chaney] [Andy Goodman] [Michael Schwerner] ["Mississippi Burning" Case] [USA v. Price] [Voting Rights] [History of CORE - Text version]

 

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