Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91; 65 S. Ct. 1031; 89 L. Ed. 1495 (1945)

Facts—Screws was a county sheriff who enlisted the assistance of a police- man and a deputy in an arrest. They arrested an African American late at night on a warrant charging him with the theft of a tire. They placed handcuffs on the individual. When they arrived at the courthouse square, the petitioners immediately started to beat him. They claimed he had reached for a gun. The police beat the African American into unconsciousness, and he died at a hospital within an hour. An indictment returned against the petitioners charged violation of Section 20 of the federal Criminal Code. This section makes it a criminal offense willfully to deprive one under color of law, of rights, privileges, or immunities secured to him by the Constitution and laws of the United States.

Question—Can Congress apply the Fourteenth Amendment to individual state officers when they act “under color of law”?


ReasonsJ. Douglas (5–4). Here the officers had deprived the accused of various rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, “the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law; the right to be tried upon the charge on which he was arrested, by due process of law and if found guilty to be punished in accordance with the laws of Georgia.” The Court stated that history shows that the word “willfully” was not added to the act until 1909. The Court reasoned that the word “willfully” makes the act less severe by requiring proof of purposeful discriminatory action. The Court therefore required a specific intent to deprive a person of a federal right, leaving no possibility for charging the act unconstitutional on grounds of vagueness.

The Court held that the petitioners acted “under color of law” in making the arrest since they were officers of the law. By their own admissions they assaulted the African American in order to protect themselves. It was their duty under Georgia law to make the arrest effective. Therefore, their conduct came within the statute.

The Court further reasoned that the problem is not whether state law has been violated, but whether someone acting under “color of any law” has deprived an inhabitant of the state of a federal right. The fact that it is also a violation of state law does not make it any the less a federal offense punishable as such. Nor does its punishment by federal authority encroach on state authority or relieve the state from its responsibility for punishing state offenses.

J. Murphy’s dissent emphasized the vagueness of the federal statute at issue. J. Roberts’s dissent emphasized that this prosecution should have proceeded under state rather than under federal laws.

NoteScrews and Benanti v. United States, 355 U.S. 96 (1957), which held that illegal wiretapping by state officers would not be permitted in federal courts, and United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299 (1941), involving primaries selecting candidates for federal office, are examples of the application to state officials of federal law. The Court has made “under color of law” and “under pretense of” state law mutually interchangeable.

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