Monroe v. Pape 1961

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Monroe v. Pape 1961

Petitioners: Mr. Monroe and his family members

Respondents: Detective Pape, the City of Chicago, and twelve other city police officers

Petitioners' Claim: That a warrantless search of a private residence conducted in a humiliating manner by police violated the families' civil rights under the 1871 Civil Rights Act.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioners: Donald P. Moore

Chief Lawyer for Respondents: Sydney R. Drebin

Justices for the Court: Hugo L. Black, William J. Brennan, Jr., Tom C. Clark, John Marshall Harlan II, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Potter Stewart, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Charles E. Whittaker

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: February 20, 1961

Decision: Ruled in favor of Monroe by finding that Monroe could sue individual policeman, but not the city of Chicago.

Significance: The decision upheld the rights of individuals to seek compensation (payment) for abuses of their civil rights by state or local government authorities. Though excluding cities from liability (responsibility) in this case, the Court later extended liability to city and state governments in a 1978 ruling.

Immediately after the American Civil War (1861–65), the U.S. government began rebuilding the South's society and devastated economy through a program known as Reconstruction. The program included placing the South under military occupation to provide some protection for ex-slaves. Knowing well how insecure liberty was for the former slaves, three U.S. constitutional amendments were adopted between 1865 and 1870, known as the Civil Rights Amendments. Together, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments guaranteed blacks individual rights provided for in the Bill of Rights in addition to other rights. For example, the Fourteenth Amendment reads,

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge [take away] the privileges . . . of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive [take from] any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law [fair legal hearings]; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction [geographic area] the equal protection of the laws.

Despite these national efforts, conditions for the former slaves improved little as many whites refused to treat freed slaves equally. A Southern white backlash rose. White supremacist (those believing one race is superior than all others) organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan established in 1866, increasingly turned to terrorist activities directed against blacks involving murder, bombings, and lynching. Often these activities were conducted with the approval if not active support of local officials and law enforcement. In other situations, local white police, juries, and judges were pressured to not protect black Americans or enforce laws. Consequently, local and state courts were often not effective in prosecuting the Klansmen.

The Ku Klux Klan Act

As violence against blacks continued to escalate, President Ulysses S. Grant urged Congress to take action. In a 1871 note to Congress, Grant wrote that in some states life and property were no longer safe and that "the power to correct these evils is beyond the control of State authorities I do not doubt." In response, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1871 to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection and due process of the laws. The act was also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act since its purpose was to protect blacks from Klan intimidation (threats of violence) and from government authorities either sympathetic to Klan goals or intimidated by Klan threats as well.

The Klan Act declared that any state or local government official, such as a police officer enforcing the law, treating a citizen in a way that denies them their constitutional rights could be held responsible to pay the wronged person for damages. The act opened the door for individuals who experienced improper police behavior, such as unreasonable searches or seizures prohibited by the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, to sue those officers for their actions. Police "search and seizure" is the inspection of a place or person for evidence related to an investigation and taking the evidence, if found, to court. To avoid Klan-influenced state or local courts, the act also gave victims the choice of going directly to federal courts concerning their charges where they might receive a fairer trial.

However, for ninety years following the law's passage courts applied it in very few instances. Courts still relied on early English legal traditions in which a person's right to sue governmental officials was very limited, a concept known as "official immunity [safe from lawsuit]." Consequently, black Americans received little protection under the 1871 act until the 1960s.

The Monroe Household Ransacked

Early in the morning of October 29, 1958 at 5:45 am while investigating a murder case, twelve Chicago police officers led by Deputy Chief of Detectives Pape broke through two doors into the Monroe family home to conduct a search. They had obtained no search warrants beforehand. At gunpoint, the police forced all members of the family out of bed, including six children and both parents. They were forcefully led to the middle of their living room where they stood together naked. According to the Monroes' complaint, Pape struck Mr. Monroe several times with a flashlight while calling him "nigger" and "black boy." Mrs. Monroe and several of the children were pushed and kicked. The police aggressively searched the house dumping out the contents of drawers and closets on the floors and ripping mattresses open. After finding no evidence, Pape took Mr. Monroe to the police station and held him for ten hours. Pape neither brought specific charges against him nor did he bring Mr. Monroe before a judge when first arriving at the police station as legally required. Monroe was not allowed to contact an attorney as well.

Not wanting to let matters die after their ordeal, the Monroes filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago and the thirteen police officers in the local district court charging them in violation of the Ku Klux Klan Act. Claiming they were merely performing their duties in a potentially hazardous situation, the city and police sought a dismissal of charges and received it. The Monroes appealed but the court of appeals upheld the district court's actions. Not receiving satisfactory results locally, the Monroes decided to take their case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear it.

The Court Overrules

Before the Court in November of 1961, the city of Chicago and the police officers argued that federal courts had no jurisdiction (proper authority to hear the case) in such disputes between local authorities and citizens. Local courts and state laws were quite sufficient to resolve such complaints. The Monroes argued that they were denied due process under the Fourteenth Amendment because of the illegal search and seizure. In response, the Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Monroes. They could legally sue the individual police officers for damages. However, the Court upheld the lower court decisions regarding the city of Chicago. City governments were not open to lawsuit under the 1871 act.

Justice William O. Douglas, writing the Court's opinion, first asserted that the federal courts did have jurisdiction in this case. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits unreasonable search and seizures and these prohibitions apply to states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Regarding the Monroes' charges, Douglas affirmed that the 1871 act requires states to enforce their laws fairly for all their citizens.

Douglas wrote, "Congress has the power to enforce provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment against those who carry a badge of authority of a State and represent it in some capacity, whether they act in accordance with their authority or misuse it."

The Right to Sue Cities, Too

The Monroe decision brought the long neglected Ku Klux Klan Act into full effect as Congress had originally intended. The ruling allowed citizens to sue state or local authorities for damages when the authorities


F ollowing the American Civil War (1861–65), resentment among white Southerners quickly grew as the U.S. government introduced policies designed to restructure Southern society to include newly freed black slaves. Seeking to reestablish political control by Southern whites, a group of former Confederate soldiers in Tennessee founded the Ku Klux Klan in 1866. A secret fraternal organization opposed to the granting of civil rights to black Americans, it was not specifically created for terrorism. However, the Klan quickly became involved in violent activities, including the lynching of blacks, murders, rapes, and bombings. The goal was to scare blacks into continued social oppression. The Klan's trademark was the wearing of white robes and hoods, reportedly representing the ghosts of Confederate dead but also useful for concealing individual identities and enhancing their menacing behavior.

Membership quickly grew to several hundred thousand by 1870. As Southern whites began to regain political power in the later 1870s, the Klan's membership and influence sharply declined. However, its peak years came later in the 1920s as anit-racial sentiment flared in the cities. Klan numbers grew to three or four million and its substantial political influence extended to states outside the South. The Klan helped elect to state and national positions many candidates who agreed with their cause. Faced with a public backlash by 1930, the Klan's popularity once again declined. Another smaller rise in Klan activity occurred in the 1960s in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement as the Klan became associated with several highly publicized violent acts against civil rights activists. By the 1990s Klan membership fell below 10,000 as white supremacists splintered into several organizations, including the Aryan Nations. Besides opposing civil rights for blacks, through its history the Klan has also fought against the rights of Jews, Catholics, foreign immigrants, and unions.

behaved improperly while carrying out their official duties. However, the Court's decision that a city could not be sued still restricted the ability of victims to seek damages when city authorities had violated their civil rights. The Court later recognized the individual's right to sue cities in Monell v. Department of Social Services (1978). Importantly, the Monroe decision also affirmed that for cases involving federal civil rights violations, citizens did not have to go to possibly unsympathetic state or local courts before taking their complaints to federal courts.

Suggestions for further reading

Collins, Allyson. Shielded From Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States. Washington, DC: Human Rights Watch, 1998.

Horowitz, David A. Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of a Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Jackson, Kenneth T. The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1992.

Washington, Linn. The Beating Goes On: Police Brutality in America. Belfast, ME: Common Courage Press, 2000.

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Monroe v. Pape 1961

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Monroe v. Pape 1961