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Screws v. United States 325 U.S. 91 (1945)

SCREWS v. UNITED STATES 325 U.S. 91 (1945)

Southern law enforcement officers were prosecuted under section 242 of Title 18, United States Code, a federal civil rights statute, for beating to death a black arrestee. Because section 242 proscribes only action "under color of law, " and because congressional power to enforce the fourteenth amendment was assumed to be limited to reaching state action, the question arose whether behavior not authorized by state law could be either state action or action under color of law. The Court's affirmative answer, which relied in part on united states v. classic (1941), both established section 242 as a weapon against police misconduct and nourished the post-1960 expansion of noncriminal civil rights litigation. monroe v. pape (1961), relying on Screws and Classic, similarly interpreted the "under color of" law requirement for noncriminal civil rights actions brought under section 1983, title 42, united states code. Exclusive reliance on state law to remedy police misconduct, a position advocated in dissent in Screws by Justices owen roberts, felix frank-furter, and robert h. jackson, would never again be the rule.

Screws also raised the question whether federal criminal civil rights statutes are unconstitutionally vague. Section 242 outlaws willful deprivations of rights secured by the Constitution. Because constitutional standards change constantly, there was doubt that section 242 provided potential defendants with adequate warning of proscribed behavior. In Screws, the Court sought to avoid this difficulty by holding that the word "willfully" in section 242 connotes "a purpose to deprive a person of a specific constitutional right." The Court's remand of the case to reinstruct the jury on the meaning of "willful" prompted Justice frank murphy to dissent, pointing out that the officers had contrived to beat their victim for fifteen minutes after he lost consciousness and arguing that the right to "life" protected by the Fourteenth Amendment surely included a right not to be murdered by state officials. The specific intent requirement has generated confusion in subsequent interpretations of the criminal civil rights statutes.

Theodore Eisenberg
(1986)

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