Town of Newton v. Rumery
480 U.S. 386 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Town of Newton v. Rumery, 480 U.S. 386 (1987)

Town of Newton v. Rumery

No. 85-1449

Argued December 8, 1986

Decided March 9, 1987

480 U.S. 386

Syllabus

After learning that a friend, David Champy, had been indicted by a New Hampshire county grand jury for aggravated felonious sexual assault, respondent sought more information from a mutual acquaintance, who coincidentally was the victim of the assault and was expected to be the principal witness against Champy. The victim called the town of Newton's Chief of Police and told him that respondent was trying to force her to drop the charges against Champy. Ultimately, respondent was arrested and accused of the state law felony of tampering with a witness. Respondent's attorney and the prosecutor negotiated an agreement whereby the prosecutor would dismiss the charges against him if he would agree to release any claims he might have against the town, its officials, or the victim for any harm caused by his arrest. Three days later, he signed the "release-dismissal agreement," and the criminal charges against him were dropped. Ten months later, he filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in Federal District Court, alleging that the town and its officers had violated his constitutional rights by arresting him, defaming him, and imprisoning him falsely. The suit was dismissed on the basis of the assertion by the defendants (petitioners here) of the release-dismissal agreement as an affirmative defense. The court rejected respondent's argument that the agreement was unenforceable because it violated public policy, and concluded that a release of claims under § 1983 was valid if, as here, it resulted from a decision that was voluntary, deliberate, and informed. The Court of Appeals reversed, adopting a per se rule invalidating release-dismissal agreements.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

778 F.2d 66, reversed and remanded.

JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III-A, IV, and V, concluding that:

1. The question whether the policies underlying § 1983 may in some circumstances render a waiver of the right to sue thereunder unenforceable is one of federal law, to be resolved by reference to traditional common law principles. The relevant principle is that a promise is unenforceable if the interest in its enforcement is outweighed in the circumstances by a public policy harmed by enforcement of the agreement. P. 480 U. S. 392.

Page 480 U. S. 387

2. Although in some cases release-dismissal agreements may infringe important interests of the criminal defendant and of society as a whole, the mere possibility of harm to such interests does not call for a per se rule invalidating all such agreements. The risk, publicity, and expense of a criminal trial may intimidate a defendant, even if he believes his defense is meritorious. But this possibility does not justify invalidating all release-dismissal agreements. In many cases, a defendant's choice to enter into a release-dismissal agreement will reflect a highly rational judgment that the certain benefits of escaping criminal prosecution exceed the speculative benefits of prevailing in a civil action. Respondent's voluntary decision to enter into the agreement here exemplifies such a judgment. Respondent, a sophisticated businessman, was not in jail, and was represented by an experienced criminal lawyer, who drafted the agreement. Respondent considered the agreement for three days before signing it. Because respondent voluntarily waived his right to sue under § 1983, the public interest opposing involuntary waiver of constitutional rights is no reason to hold the agreement here invalid. Pp. 480 U. S. 392-394.

3. The District Court's decision to enforce the agreement was correct. Not only did respondent voluntarily enter into the agreement, but also the prosecutor had a legitimate reason to make this agreement that was directly related to his prosecutorial responsibilities and was independent of his discretion as to bringing criminal charges. A significant consideration in the prosecutor's decision was the fact that it spared the victim of the alleged sexual offense from the public scrutiny and embarrassment she would have endured if she had been required to testify in either the civil trial or the criminal trial concerning respondent. Pp. 480 U. S. 397-398.

JUSTICE POWELL, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE SCALIA, concluded in Part III-B that, in some cases, there may be a substantial basis for the Court of Appeals' concern that release-dismissal agreements offend public policy because they may tempt prosecutors to trump up charges in reaction to a defendant's civil rights claim, suppress evidence of police misconduct, and leave deprivations of constitutional rights unremedied. However, respondent had no public duty to institute a § 1983 action merely to further the public's interest in revealing police misconduct. Congress confined the decision to bring such actions to the injured individual, not to the public at large. Release-dismissal agreements may tempt prosecutors to bring frivolous charges or to dismiss meritorious charges in order to protect the interests of other officials. But a per se rule of invalidity fails to credit other relevant public interests, and improperly assumes prosecutorial misconduct. Many § 1983 suits are marginal, and some are frivolous, but the burden of defending such suits is substantial, requiring officials' time and

Page 480 U. S. 388

attention, to the detriment of their public duties. A per se rule of invalidity also improperly assumes that prosecutors will seize the opportunity for wrongdoing. Against the background of general judicial deference to prosecutorial discretion in bringing criminal charges, the mere opportunity to act improperly does not compel an assumption that all -- or even a significant number of -- release-dismissal agreements stem from prosecutors' abandoning the independence of judgment required by their public trust. Rather, tradition and experience justify the belief that the great majority of prosecutors will be faithful to their duty. Pp. 480 U. S. 394-397.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR, agreeing that release-dismissal agreements are not void as against public policy in all cases, that a case-by-case approach appropriately balances the important interests on both sides of the question of the enforceability of such agreements, and that, on the facts here, respondent's covenant not to sue was enforceable, emphasized that it is the burden of those relying upon such covenants to establish that the agreement is neither involuntary nor the product of an abuse of the criminal process. The dangers of release-dismissal agreements -- particularly the potential threats to the integrity of the criminal process and to the vindication of federal civil rights -- do not preclude enforcement of such agreements in all cases. The defendants in a § 1983 suit may establish that a particular release executed in exchange for the dismissal of criminal charges was voluntarily made, not the product of prosecutorial overreaching, and was in the public interest. But they must prove that this is so; the courts should not presume it. Pp. 480 U. S. 399-403.

POWELL, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III-A, IV, and V, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part III-B, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and SCALIA, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 480 U. S. 399. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 480 U. S. 403.

Page 480 U. S. 389

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