1. A special police officer who, in his official capacity, by
use of force and violence, obtains a confession from a person
suspected of crime may be prosecuted under what is now 18 U.S.C. §
242, which makes it an offense for any person, under color of law,
willfully to subject 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. Pp. 341 U. S.
2. Petitioner, a private detective who held a special police
officer's card issued by the City of Miami, Fla., and had taken an
oath and qualified as a special police officer, was employed by a
business corporation to ascertain the identity of thieves who had
been stealing its property. Showing his badge and accompanied by a
regular policeman, he beat certain suspects and thereby obtained
on the record in this case, petitioner was acting
"under color" of law within the meaning of § 242, or at least the
jury could properly so find. Pp. 341 U. S.
3. As applied, under the facts of this case, to the denial of
rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, §
242 is not void for vagueness. Pp. 341 U. S.
4. Where police take matters into their own hands, seize
victims, and beat them until they confess, they deprive the victims
of rights under the Constitution. P. 341 U. S.
5. In view of the terms of the indictment, as interpreted by the
instructions to the jury, it cannot be said that any issue of
vagueness of § 242, as construed and applied, is present in this
case. Pp. 341 U. S.
179 F.2d 656 affirmed.
Petitioner was convicted of a violation of what is now 18 U.S.C.
§ 242. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 179 F.2d 656. This Court
granted certiorari. 340 U.S. 850. Affirmed,
341 U. S.
Page 341 U. S. 98
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
The question in this case is whether a special police officer
who in his official capacity subjects a person suspected of crime
to force and violence in order to obtain a confession may be
prosecuted under § 20 of the Criminal Code, 18 U.S.C. (1946 ed.) §
52, now 18 U.S.C. § 242.
Section 20 provides in pertinent part:
"Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance,
regulation, or custom, willfully 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 . . .
shall be fined not more than $1,000, or imprisoned not more than
one year, or both."
The facts are these: the Lindsley Lumber Co. suffered numerous
thefts, and hired petitioner, who operated a detective agency, to
ascertain the identity of the thieves. Petitioner held a special
police officer's card issued by the City of Miami, Florida, and had
taken an oath and qualified as a special police officer. Petitioner
and others over a period of three days took four men to a paint
shack on the company's premises and used brutal methods to obtain a
confession from each of them. A rubber hose, a pistol, a blunt
instrument, a sash cord, and other implements were used in the
project. One man was forced to look at a bright light for fifteen
minutes; when he was blinded, he was repeatedly hit with a rubber
Page 341 U. S. 99
and a sash cord and finally knocked to the floor. Another was
knocked from a chair and hit in the stomach again and again. He was
put back in the chair and the procedure was repeated. One was
backed against the wall and jammed in the chest with a club. Each
was beaten, threatened, and unmercifully punished for several hours
until he confessed. One Ford, a policeman, was sent by his superior
to lend authority to the proceedings. And petitioner, who committed
the assaults, went about flashing his badge.
The indictment charged, among other things, that petitioner
acting under color of law used force to make each victim confess to
his guilt and implicate others, and that the victims were denied
the right to be tried by due process of law and, if found guilty,
to be sentenced and punished in accordance with the laws of the
state. Petitioner was found guilty by a jury under instructions
which conformed with the rulings of the Court in Screws v.
United States, 325 U. S. 91
Court of Appeals affirmed. 179 F.2d 656. The case, which is a
companion to No. 26, United States v. Williams, ante,
341 U. S. 70
No. 134, United States v. Williams, ante,
p. 341 U. S. 58
decided this day, is here on certiorari.
We think it clear that petitioner was acting "under color" of
law within the meaning of § 20, or at least that the jury could
properly so find. We interpreted this phrase of § 20 in United
States v. Classic, 313 U. S. 299
313 U. S.
"Misuse of power, possessed by virtue of state law and made
possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority
of state law, is action taken 'under color of' state law."
And see Screws v. United States, supra,
at 325 U. S.
-111. It is common practice, as we noted in Labor
Board v. Jones & Laughlin Co., 331 U.
, 331 U. S. 429
for private guards or detectives to be vested with policemen's
powers. We know from the record that that is the policy of Miami,
Florida. Moreover, this was an investigation
Page 341 U. S. 100
conducted under the aegis of the State, as evidenced by the fact
that a regular police officer was detailed to attend it. We need go
no further to conclude that the lower court, to whom we give
deference on local law matters, see Gardner v. New Jersey,
329 U. S. 565
329 U. S. 583
was correct in holding that petitioner was no mere interloper, but
had a semblance of policeman's power from Florida. There was,
therefore, evidence that he acted under authority of Florida law,
and the manner of his conduct of the interrogations makes clear
that he was asserting the authority granted him, and not acting in
the role of a private person. In any event, the charge to the jury
drew the line between official and unofficial conduct which we
explored in Screws v. United States, supra,
325 U. S. 111
and gave petitioner all of the protection which "color of" law as
used in § 20 offers.
The main contention is that the application of § 20 so as to
sustain a conviction for obtaining a confession by use of force and
violence is unconstitutional. The argument is the one that a clear
majority of the Court rejected in Screws v. United States,
and runs as follows:
Criminal statutes must have an ascertainable standard of guilt
or they fall for vagueness. See United States v. L. Cohen
Grocery Co., 255 U. S. 81
Winters v. New York, 333 U. S. 507
Section 20, it is argued, lacks the necessary specificity when
rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment are
involved. We are pointed to the course of decisions by this Court
under the Due Process Clause as proof of the vague and fluid
standard for "rights, privileges, or immunities secured or
protected by the Constitution" as used in § 20. We are referred to
decisions where we have been closely divided on whether state
action violated due process. More specifically, we are cited many
instances where the Court has been conspicuously in disagreement on
the illegal character
Page 341 U. S. 101
of confessions under the Due Process Clause. If the Court cannot
agree as to what confessions violate the Fourteenth Amendment, how
can one who risks criminal prosecutions for his acts be sure of the
standard? Thus, it is sought to show that police officers such as
petitioner walk on ground far too treacherous for criminal
Many criminal statutes might be extended to circumstances so
extreme as to make their application unconstitutional. Conversely,
as we held in Screws v. United States,
construction will often save an act from vagueness that is fatal.
The present case is as good an illustration as any. It is as plain
as a pikestaff that the present confessions would not be allowed in
evidence whatever the school of thought concerning the scope and
meaning of the Due Process Clause. This is the classic use of force
to make a man testify against himself. The result is as plain as if
the rack, the wheel, and the thumb screw -- the ancient methods of
securing evidence by torture, Brown v. Mississippi,
297 U. S. 278
297 U. S.
-286; Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.
, 309 U. S. 237
-- were used to compel the confession. Someday the application of §
20 to less obvious methods of coercion may be presented, and doubts
as to the adequacy of the standard of guilt may be presented. There
may be a similar doubt when an officer is tried under § 20 for
beating a man to death. That was a doubt stirred in the
case, and it was the reason we held that the
purpose must be plain, the deprivation of the constitutional right
willful. But where police take matters in their own hands, seize
victims, beat and pound them until they confess, there cannot be
the slightest doubt that the police have deprived the victim of a
right under the Constitution. It is the right of the accused to be
tried by a legally constituted court, not by a kangaroo court.
Hence, when officers wring confessions from the accused
Page 341 U. S. 102
by force and violence, they violate some of the most
fundamental, basic, and well established constitutional rights
which every citizen enjoys. Petitioner and his associates acted
willfully and purposely; their aim was precisely to deny the
protection that the Constitution affords. *
It was an
arrogant and brutal deprivation of rights which the Constitution
specifically guarantees. Section 20 would be denied the high
service for which it was designed if rights so palpably plain were
denied its protection. Only casuistry could make vague and nebulous
what our constitutional scheme makes so clear and specific.
An effort, however, is made to free Williams by an extremely
technical construction of the indictment and charge, so as to
condemn the application of § 20 on the grounds of vagueness.
The indictment charged that petitioners deprived designated
persons of rights and privileges secured to them by the Fourteenth
Amendment. These deprivations were defined in the indictment to
include "illegal" assault and battery. But the meaning of these
rights in the context of the indictment was plain, viz.,
immunity from the use
Page 341 U. S. 103
of force and violence to obtain a confession.
count 2 of the indictment charges that the Fourteenth Amendment
rights of one Purnell were violated in the following respects:
". . . the right and privilege not to be deprived of liberty
without due process of law, the right and privilege to be secure in
his person while in the custody of the Florida, the right and
privilege not to be subjected to punishment without due process of
law, the right and privilege to be immune, while in the custody of
persons acting under color of the laws of the Florida, from illegal
assault and battery by any person exercising the authority of said
State, and the right and privilege to be tried by due process of
law and if found guilty to be sentenced and punished in accordance
with the laws of the Florida; that is to say, on or about the 28th
day of March, 1947, the defendants arrested and detained and caused
to be arrested and detained the said Frank J. Purnell, Jr., and
brought and caused him to be brought to and into a certain building
sometimes called a shack on the premises of the Lindsley Lumber Co.
at or near 3810 N.W. 17th Avenue, in said City of Miami, Florida,
and did there detain the said Frank J. Purnell, Jr., and while he
was so detained the defendants did then and there illegally strike,
bruise, batter, beat, assault and torture the said Frank J.
Purnell, Jr., in order illegally to coerce and force the said Frank
J. Purnell, Jr., to make an admission and confession of his guilt
in connection with the alleged theft of personal property, alleged
to be the property of said Lindsley Lumber Co., and in order
illegally to coerce and force the said Frank J. Purnell, Jr., to
name and accuse other persons as participants in alleged thefts of
Page 341 U. S. 104
property, alleged to be the property of the said Lindsley Lumber
Co., and for the purpose of imposing illegal summary punishment
upon the said Frank J. Purnell, Jr."
The trial judge, in his charge to the jury, summarized Count 2
as meaning that the defendants beat Purnell "for the purpose of
forcing him to make a confession and for the purpose of imposing
illegal summary punishment upon him." He further made clear that
the defendants were "not here on trial for a violation of any law
of the Florida for assault," nor "for assault under any laws of the
United States." There cannot be the slightest doubt from the
reading of the indictment and charge as a whole that the defendants
were charged with and tried for one of the most brutal deprivations
of constitutional rights that can be imagined. It therefore strains
at technicalities to say that any issue of vagueness of § 20 as
construed and applied is present in the case. Our concern is to see
that substantial justice is done, not to search the record for
possible errors which will defeat the great purpose of Congress in
enacting § 20.
MR. JUSTICE BLACK dissents.
* The trial judge charged in part on this phase of the case:
"The law denies to anyone acting under color of law, statute,
ordinance, regulation or custom the right to try a person by ordeal
-- that is, for the officer himself to inflict such punishment upon
the person as he thinks the person should receive. Now, in
determining whether this requisite of willful intent was present in
this case as to these counts, you gentlemen are entitled to
consider all the attendant circumstances: the malice, if any, of
the defendants toward these men; the weapon used in the assault, if
any, and the character and duration of the investigation, if any,
of the assault, if any, and the time and manner in which it was
carried out. All these facts and circumstances may be taken into
consideration from the evidence that has been submitted for the
purpose of determining whether the acts of the defendants were
willful and for the deliberate and willful purpose of depriving
these men of their Constitutional rights to be tried by a jury just
like everyone else."
MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER, MR. JUSTICE JACKSON and MR. JUSTICE
Experience in the effort to apply the doctrine of Screws v.
United States, 325 U. S. 91
MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER, MR. JUSTICE JACKSON and MR. JUSTICE MINTON
to dissent for the reasons set forth in dissent in that case.