United States v. Price
383 U.S. 787 (1966)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787 (1966)

United States v. Price

Nos. 59 and 60

Argued November 9, 1965

Decided March 28, 1966

383 U.S. 787

Syllabus

Appellees are three Mississippi law enforcement officials and 15 private individuals who are alleged to have conspired to deprive three individuals of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The alleged conspiracy involved releasing the victims from jail at night; intercepting, assaulting and killing them, and disposing of their bodies. Its purpose was to "punish" the victims summarily. Two indictments were returned. One charged all appellees with a conspiracy under 18 U.S.C. § 371 to violate 18 U.S.C. § 242, which makes it a misdemeanor willfully and under color of law to subject any person to the deprivation of any rights secured or protected by the Constitution. The indictment also charged all appellees with substantive violations of § 242. The District Court sustained the conspiracy count against a motion to dismiss, and sustained the substantive counts as to the three official defendants. It dismissed the substantive counts as to the 15 private defendants on the ground that, although the indictment alleged that they had acted "under color" of law, it did not allege that they were acting as officers of the State. This dismissal is here on direct appeal as No. 60. The other indictment charged all appellees with a conspiracy in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 241, making it a felony to conspire to interfere with a citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. The District Court dismissed this indictment as to all appellees on the ground that § 241 does not include rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. This dismissal is here on direct appeal as No. 59.

Held:

1. The District Court erred in dismissing the indictment in No. 60 insofar as it charged the private defendants with substantive violations of § 242. Pp. 383 U. S. 794-796.

(a) "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." Pp. 383 U. S. 794-795.

Page 383 U. S. 788

(b) The dismissal of the indictment in No. 60 as to the private persons resulted from the District Court's erroneous construction of the "under color" of law requirement of § 242 as making the statute inapplicable to nonofficials, not upon a construction of the indictment as a pleading; hence the dismissal is reviewable on direct appeal. Pp. 383 U. S. 795-796.

2. Section 241 includes within its protection rights secured or protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, and the District Court accordingly erred in dismissing the indictment in No. 59. Pp. 383 U. S. 796-807.

(a) The District Court incorrectly assumed that United States v. Williams,341 U. S. 70, authoritatively determined the inapplicability of § 241 to deprivations of Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Justices who reached that issue in Williams divided equally on the question. That case "thus left the proper construction of § 241, as regards its applicability to protect Fourteenth Amendment rights, an open question." Pp. 383 U. S. 797-798.

(b) "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 . . . , 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." Pp. 383 U. S. 799-800.

(c) The wording of § 241 suggests no limitation of its coverage to exclude Fourteenth Amendment rights. "The language of § 241 is plain and unlimited. . . . [I]ts 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." P. 383 U. S. 800.

(d) The legislative history of § 241 supports the view that it was intended to encompass Fourteenth Amendment rights within its protection. Pp. 383 U. S. 800-806.

Reversed and remanded.

Page 383 U. S. 789

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