McMillian v. Monroe County - 520 U.S. 781 (1997)


OCTOBER TERM, 1996

Syllabus

McMILLIAN v. MONROE COUNTY, ALABAMA

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

No. 96-542. Argued March 18, 1997-Decided June 2,1997

Mter spending six years on Alabama's death row, petitioner's capital murder conviction was reversed on the ground that the State had suppressed exculpatory evidence. He then sued respondent Monroe County and others under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 for the allegedly unconstitutional actions of, inter alios, County Sheriff Tom Tate in suppressing the evidence. A county is liable under § 1983 for those actions of its sheriff that constitute county "policy." Monell v. New York Gity Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U. S. 658, 694. The District Court dismissed the claims, holding that Tate's unlawful acts did not represent Monroe County's policy, because an Alabama county has no authority to make law enforcement policy. The Court of Appeals affirmed, agreeing that a sheriff acting in his law enforcement capacity is not a policymaker for the county.

Held: Alabama sheriffs, when executing their law enforcement duties, represent the State of Alabama, not their counties. Pp. 784-796.

(a) In determining a local government's § 1983 liability, a court's task is to identify those who speak with final policymaking authority for the local governmental actor concerning the action alleged to have caused the violation at issue. JeU v. Dallas Independent School Dist., 491 U. S. 701, 737. The parties agree that Sheriff Tate has final policymaking authority in the area of law enforcement, but they disagree about whether Alabama sheriffs are policymakers for the State or the county when acting in their law enforcement capacity. In deciding this dispute, the question is not whether Alabama sheriffs act as county or state officials in all of their official actions, but whom they represent in a particular area or on a particular issue. Ibid. This inquiry is dependent on the definition of the official's functions under relevant state law. Cf. Regents of Univ. of Gal. v. Doe, 519 U. S. 425, 429, n. 5. Pp.784-786.

(b) The Court defers considerably to the Court of Appeals' expertise in interpreting Alabama law, see JeU, supra, at 738, and concludes that the State's constitutional provisions concerning sheriffs, the historical development of those provisions, and the interpretation given them by the State Supreme Court strongly support Monroe County's contention that sheriffs represent the State when acting in their law enforcement capacity. The relevant portions of the Alabama Code, although less


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compelling, also support this conclusion. Code provisions cutting in favor of the conclusion that sheriffs are county officials are insufficient to tip the balance in petitioner's favor. Pp.786-793.

(c) The Court rejects petitioner's arguments that the result here will create a lack of uniformity in Alabama-by allowing 67 county sheriffs to have different state law enforcement policies in their countiesand throughout the country-by permitting sheriffs to be classified as state officials in some States and county officials in others. The common law itself envisioned the possibility that state law enforcement "policies" might vary locally, as particular sheriffs adopted varying practices for arresting criminals or securing evidence. And the Nation's federal nature allows the States wide authority to set up their state and local governments as they wish. Petitioner's and his amici's concern that state and local governments will manipulate local officials' titles in a blatant effort to shield local governments from liability is foreclosed by St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U. S. 112, 127 (plurality opinion). Pp. 793-796.

88 F.3d 1573, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, SOUTER, and BREYER, JJ., joined, post, p. 796.

Bryan A. Stevenson argued the cause for petitioner.

With him on the briefs was Robert B. McDuff

Paul M. Smith argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Donald B. Verrilli, Thomas J. Perrelli, James W Webb, Kendrick E. Webb, Daryl L. Masters, and Bart Harmon. *

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the United States by Acting Solicitor General Dellinger, Acting Assistant Attorney General Pinzler, Deputy Solicitor General Waxman, Lisa Schiavo Blatt, and Miriam R. Eisenstein; for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Steven R. Shapiro, Paul C. Saunders, Marc L. Fleischaker, Norman Redlich, Barbara R. Arnwine, Thomas J. Henderson, Mitchell F. Dolin, and Robert A. Long, Jr.; and for the Southern States Police Benevolent Association by J. Michael McGuinness.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for Jefferson County, Alabama, by Jeffrey M. Sewell and Charles S. Wagner; and for the National Association of Counties et al. by Richard Ruda and James I. Crowley.


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Full Text of Opinion

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