Steffel v. Thompson,
415 U.S. 452 (1974)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452 (1974)

Steffel v. Thompson

No. 72-5581

Argued November 13, 1973

Decided March 19, 1974

415 U.S. 452


Petitioner, who had twice been warned to stop handbilling on an exterior sidewalk of a shopping center against American involvement in Vietnam and threatened with arrest by police if he failed to do so, and whose companion continued handbilling and was charged with violating the Georgia criminal trespass law, brought an action for injunctive and declaratory relief in the District Court, claiming that application to him of that law would violate his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The District Court dismissed the action, finding that "no meaningful contention can be made that the state has [acted] or will . . . act in bad faith," and therefore "the rudiments of an active controversy between the parties . . . [are] lacking." The Court of Appeals affirmed, being of the view that Younger v. Harris, 401 U. S. 37, made it clear that irreparable injury must be measured by bad faith harassment, and such a test must be applied to a request for injunctive relief against threatened, as well as pending, state court criminal prosecution; and that it followed from the reasoning of Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U. S. 66, that the same test of bad faith harassment is a prerequisite for declaratory relief with respect to a threatened prosecution.


1. This case presents an "actual controversy" under Art. III of the Constitution and the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act, the alleged threats of prosecution in the circumstances alleged not being "imaginary or speculative" and it being unnecessary for petitioner to expose himself to actual arrest or prosecution to make his constitutional challenge. Whether the controversy remains substantial and continuing in the light of the effect of the recent reduction of the Nation's involvement in Vietnam on petitioner's desire to engage in the handbilling at the shopping center must be resolved by the District Court on remand. Pp. 415 U. S. 458-460.

2. Federal declaratory relief is not precluded when a prosecution based upon an assertedly unconstitutional state statute has been threatened, but is not pending, even if a showing of bad faith

Page 415 U. S. 453

enforcement or other special circumstances has not been made. Pp. 415 U. S. 460-473.

(a) When no state criminal proceeding is pending at the time the federal complaint is filed, considerations of equity, comity, and federalism on which Younger v. Harris and Samuels v. Mackell both supra, were based, have little vitality: federal intervention does not result in duplicative legal proceedings or disruption of the state criminal justice system; nor can federal intervention, in that circumstance, be interpreted as reflecting negatively upon the state courts' ability to enforce constitutional principles. Pp. 415 U. S. 460-462

(b) Even if the Court of Appeals correctly viewed injunctive relief as inappropriate (a question not reached here, petitioner having abandoned his request for that remedy), the court erred in treating the requests for injunctive and declaratory relief as a single issue and in holding that a failure to demonstrate irreparable injury precluded the granting of declaratory relief. Congress plainly intended that a declaratory judgment be available as a milder alternative than the injunction to test the constitutionality of state criminal statutes. Pp. 415 U. S. 462-473.

3. In determining whether it is appropriate to grant declaratory relief when no state criminal proceeding is pending, it is immaterial whether the attack is made on the constitutionality of a state criminal statute on its face or as applied. Cameron v. Johnson, 390 U. S. 611, distinguished. Pp. 415 U. S. 473-475.

459 F.2d 919, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. STEWART, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 415 U. S. 475. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 415 U. S. 476. REHNQUIST, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 415 U. S. 478.

Page 415 U. S. 454

Primary Holding

A federal court has the authority to hear a case challenging the constitutionality of a state criminal law, even if no prosecution is pending but merely threatened.


Steffel circulated handbills that protested the Vietnam War on the sidewalk of a shopping center. He was told twice that he could be arrested and charged if he continued to distribute them. Steffel ceased his activities and sued for a declaratory judgment in federal court on the grounds that the Georgia criminal trespass law infringed on his First Amendment rights. He argued that he should receive an injunction that would prevent Thompson and other state officials from enforcing the law in this situation. The lower court dismissed the case, ruling that he needed to show bad-faith harassment when seeking declaratory relief or an injunction.



  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

Federal courts generally should not issue injunctions against ongoing criminal prosecutions in state courts, but they may consider whether a state criminal law is unconstitutional without violating principles of equity, comity, and federalism. This is true whether the challenge is facial or as applied, as long as the plaintiff can show that there is a real threat of prosecution. Declaratory relief may be sought even if the plaintiff cannot meet the irreparable injury standard required to receive an injunction. State prosecutors can continue to use a statute as the basis for a state prosecution even if a federal court issues a declaratory judgment that it is unconstitutional, since declaratory relief is a less drastic remedy that does not interfere with proceedings in state courts.


  • Potter Stewart (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger

It will be rare for a plaintiff to be able to show that there is a genuine threat of prosecution under the challenged law, but the majority is correct in using this standard to determine whether declaratory relief may be available.


  • Byron Raymond White (Author)

If a federal court issues a declaratory judgment that a state criminal law is unconstitutional, it should prevent a prosecution under that law in a state court because of its res judicata effect. The federal court that issued this judgment also should be able to issue an injunction against a state court where the plaintiff is being prosecuted for this conduct. Judicial economy also supports refusing to dismiss this type of case in federal court when a state prosecution is filed after the federal case is brought and has proceeded far enough.


  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger

A state should be allowed to bring charges against an individual who is simultaneously challenging the constitutionality of the criminal law in a federal court. Declaratory judgments are not meant to protect criminal defendants with immunity through the federal judicial system. They would be inappropriate if the plaintiff is arrested before the federal case has concluded. This means that a person who has violated a law after initiating a federal case seeking declaratory relief may be prosecuted at the state level and subsequently be subject to having the federal case dismissed.

Case Commentary

In some situations, this rule may extend to civil proceedings that have an impact similar to a criminal case. Declaratory relief must be based on a showing that injunctive relief would be appropriate if a prosecution is already threatened.

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