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decided: April 23, 1951.



Vinson, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Jackson, Burton, Clark, Minton

Author: Frankfurter

[ 341 U.S. Page 71]

 MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, MR. JUSTICE JACKSON and MR. JUSTICE MINTON joined.

In 1947 a Florida corporation employed a detective agency to investigate thefts of its property. The inquiry was conducted by one Williams, the head of the agency, and among the participants were two of his employees and a member of the Miami police force detailed to assist in the investigation. Certain of the company's employees fell under suspicion; and Williams and his collaborators, without arresting the suspects, took them one by one to a shack on the company's premises. There the investigators subjected them to the familiar "third-degree" which, after blows, kicks, threats, and prolonged exposure to a brilliant light, yielded "confessions."

Williams and the other three were thereupon indicted for violation of §§ 19 and 20 of the Criminal Code of the United States. 18 U. S. C. (1946 ed.) §§ 51 and 52, now 18 U. S. C. §§ 241 and 242. Williams was convicted under § 20, the indictment alleging that he "wilfully, under color of the laws, statutes, ordinances, regulations and customs of the State of Florida . . . subjected . . . an inhabitant of the State of Florida, to deprivation of the rights, privileges and immunities secured to him and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment . . . ." This conviction is reviewed in No. 365, post, p. 97, also decided this day. The other defendants were acquitted of the charges under § 20, and as to all defendants a

[ 341 U.S. Page 72]

     mistrial was declared under § 19. This outcome of the indictment under §§ 19 and 20 was followed by a new indictment against the four defendants under § 19. The indictment alleged that "acting under the laws of the State of Florida" the defendants "conspired to injure . . . a citizen of the United States and of the State of Florida, in the free exercise and enjoyment of the rights and privileges secured to him and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment . . . ." This time all the defendants were convicted; but on appeal the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. It held that in the conspiracy provision of § 19 "the Congress had in mind the federal rights and privileges which appertain to citizens as such and not the general rights extended to all persons by the clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." 179 F.2d 644, 648. In the alternative, the court concluded that a broader construction of § 19 would render it void for indefiniteness, and that there was error in the judge's charge as well as in the exclusion of evidence of the prior acquittal of three of the defendants. Together with Nos. 134 and 365 of this Term, the other two cases growing out of the same affair, we brought the case here because important questions in the administration of civil rights legislation are raised. 340 U.S. 849.

The alternative grounds for the decision of the Court of Appeals need not be considered, for we agree that § 241 (to use the current designation for what was § 19 of the Criminal Code) does not reach the conduct laid as an offense in the prosecution here. This is not because we deny the power of Congress to enforce by appropriate criminal sanction every right guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; nor is it because we fully accept the course of reasoning of the court below. We base our decision on the history of § 241, its text and context, the statutory framework in which it stands, its practical and judicial application -- controlling

[ 341 U.S. Page 73]

     elements in construing a federal criminal provision that affects the wise adjustment between State responsibility and national control of essentially local affairs. The elements all converge in one direction. They lead us to hold that § 241 only covers conduct which interferes with rights arising from the substantive powers of the Federal Government.

What is now known as § 241 originated as § 6 of the Act of May 31, 1870, 16 Stat. 140. That statute was entitled "An Act to enforce the Right of Citizens of the United States to vote in the several States of this Union, and for other Purposes." In furtherance of its chief end of assuring the right of Negroes to vote, it provided in §§ 2 and 3 that it should be a misdemeanor for any "person or officer" wrongfully to fail in a duty imposed on him by State law to perform or permit performance of acts necessary to registering or voting. In § 4 interference with elections by private persons was made a similar offense. In the course of passage through Congress several sections were added which had a larger purpose. One of them, § 17, was derived from the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 14 Stat. 27, and was designed to "secure to all persons the equal protection of the laws."*fn1 It imposed imprisonment up to one year and a fine up to one thousand dollars on

"any person who, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, shall subject, or cause to be subjected, any inhabitant of any State or Territory to the deprivation of any right secured or protected by the last preceding section of this act, or to different punishment, pains, or penalties on account of such person being an alien, or by reason of his color or race, than is prescribed for the punishment of citizens . . . ." 16 Stat. 140, 144.

[ 341 U.S. Page 74]

     Through successive revisions it has become § 242, the application of which to the facts before us is considered in No. 365, post, p. 97.

Another of the broader provisions is the section which is our immediate concern. This was its original form:

"SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That if two or more persons shall band or conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway, or upon the premises of another, with intent to violate any provision of this act, or to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having exercised the same, such persons shall be held guilty of felony, and, on conviction thereof, shall be fined or imprisoned, or both, at the discretion of the court, -- the fine not to exceed five thousand dollars, and the imprisonment not to exceed ten years, -- and shall, moreover, be thereafter ineligible to, and disabled from holding, any office or place of honor, profit, or trust created by the Constitution or laws of the United States." 16 Stat. 140, 141.

The dominant conditions of the Reconstruction Period were not conducive to the enactment of carefully considered and coherent legislation. Strong post-war feeling caused inadequate deliberation and led to loose and careless phrasing of laws relating to the new political issues. The sections before us are no exception. Although enacted together, they were proposed by different sponsors and hastily adopted. They received little attention in debate. While the discussion of the bill as a whole fills about 100 pages of the Congressional Globe, only two or three related to § 6, and these are in good part

[ 341 U.S. Page 75]

     a record of complaint that the section was inadequately considered or understood.*fn2

Nevertheless some conclusions are warranted. The first is that interference with civil rights by State officers was dealt with fully by § 17 of the Act. Three years before its enactment Congress had passed the first general conspiracy statute. Act of March 2, 1867, § 30, 14 Stat. 484; R. S. § 5440; now 18 U. S. C. § 371. This provision, in conjunction with § 17, reached conspiracies under color of State law to deprive persons of rights guaranteed

[ 341 U.S. Page 76]

     by the Fourteenth Amendment. No other provision of the Act of 1870 was necessary for that purpose.

The second conclusion is that if language is to carry any meaning at all it must be clear that the principal purpose of § 6, unlike § 17, was to reach private action rather than officers of a State acting under its authority. Men who "go in disguise upon the public highway, or upon the premises of another" are not likely to be acting in official capacities. The history of the times -- the lawless activities of private bands, of which the Klan was the most conspicuous -- explains why Congress dealt with both State disregard of the new constitutional prohibitions and private lawlessness.*fn3 The sponsor of § 6 in the Senate made explicit that the purpose of his amendment was to control private conduct.*fn4

[ 341 U.S. Page 77]

     These two conclusions strongly suggest a third: that the rights which § 6 protects are those which Congress can beyond doubt constitutionally secure against interference by private individuals. Decisions of this Court have established that this category includes rights which arise from the relationship of the individual and the Federal Government. The right of citizens to vote in congressional elections, for instance, may obviously be protected by Congress from individual as well as from State interference. Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651. On the other hand, we have consistently held that the category of rights which Congress may constitutionally protect from interference by private persons excludes those rights which the Constitution merely guarantees from interference by a State. Thus we held that an individual's interest in receiving a fair trial in State courts cannot be constitutionally vindicated by federal prosecution of private persons. United States v. Powell, 212 U.S. 564; accord, Hodges v. United States, 203 U.S. 1; United Page 78} States v. Wheeler, 254 U.S. 281. The distinction which these decisions draw between rights that flow from the substantive powers of the Federal Government and may clearly be protected from private interference, and interests which the Constitution only guarantees from interference by States, is a familiar one in American law. See, e. g., Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303, 310.

To construe § 6 so as to protect interests not arising from the relationship of the individual with the Federal Government, but only guaranteed by the Constitution from interference by the States, would make its scope duplicate the coverage of § 17 and the general conspiracy clause. That this is not in fact what Congress desired is confirmed by further examination of the text of the statute. Full allowance for hasty draftsmanship cannot obscure clear indications from the text that the category of interests protected by § 6 does not include the rights against State action secured by § 17.

Thus, when Congress wished to protect from State action interests guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, it described them in § 17 as rights "secured or protected" by the Constitution. But in § 6 the narrower phrase "granted or secured" is used to define the interests protected from interference by individuals. When Congress wanted to reach action by State officers, the explicit reference in § 17 to "color" of State law demonstrates that Congress knew how to make this purpose known. Similarly, reference in §§ 2 and 3 to "persons or officers" indicates that Congress was able explicitly to draft a section applicable to persons acting in private and official capacities alike. In contrast, § 6 was made applicable simply to "persons." Nothing in its terms indicates that color of State law was to be relevant to prosecution under it.*fn5

[ 341 U.S. Page 79]

     To find this significance in the text of the Act of 1870 is not to give undue weight to differences in phraseology appearing in the statute. For the text of these sections has been considered by Congress not once but five times. Some minor changes of phraseology were made in the course of the successive revisions. But neither the Revised Statutes of 1874-1878, nor the Criminal Code of 1909, nor the 1926 codification in the United States Code, nor the 1948 revision of the Criminal Code, indicates either in text or reviser's commentary any change in substance. The continuity of meaning is indicated in the Appendix to this opinion, post, p. 83.

In three of the revisions, furthermore, Congress had before it a consistent course of decisions of this Court indicating that § 6 -- now § 241 -- was in practice interpreted only to protect rights arising from the existence and powers of the Federal Government. The pattern was established by United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542. The defendants were indicted for conspiring to deprive some Negro citizens of rights secured by the Constitution. This Court affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court arresting judgment entered on a verdict of guilty. It found that counts alleging interference with rights secured by the First, Second, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were objectionable because the rights asserted were not "granted or secured by the constitution or laws of the United States" within the meaning of the statute. 92 U.S. at 551. The pattern set by this case has never been departed from.

Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, was the first of seven decisions in which the Court held or assumed that the

[ 341 U.S. Page 80]

     right to vote in federal elections was protected by this legislation because it was a right "granted or secured" by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347; United States v. Mosley, 238 U.S. 383; and United States v. Saylor, 322 U.S. 385, held that interference by private persons with the right to vote in general elections for members of Congress is an offense under § 241; in United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, the statute was found applicable to the Louisiana system of primary elections for Congress.*fn6

In United States v. Waddell, 112 U.S. 76, interference with the right to establish a claim under the Homestead Acts brought the offender within § 241. The right did not pertain to United States citizenship; but since it was "wholly dependent upon the act of Congress," obstructing its exercise came "within the purview of the statute and of the constitutional power of Congress to make such statute." 112 U.S. at 79, 80. Similarly, the Court has held that assault upon a citizen in the custody of a United States marshal is a violation of the statute, Logan v. United States, 144 U.S. 263. And so, a citizen may not be denied the right to inform on violation of federal laws. In re Quarles, 158 U.S. 532; Motes v. United States, 178 U.S. 458.

Contrariwise, we have held that conspiracies to force citizens to give up their jobs or compel them to move out of a State are not within the terms of the statute. Hodges v. United States, 203 U.S. 1; United States v. Wheeler, 254 U.S. 281. And in United States v. Powell, 212 U.S. 564, we held that participants in a mob which seized a

[ 341 U.S. Page 81]

     Negro from the custody of the local sheriff and lynched him were not indictable under § 241.*fn7

In none of these decisions was the precise issue before us decided, for in none was it alleged that the defendants acted under color of State law. But the validity of a conviction under § 241 depends on the scope of that section, which cannot be expanded by the draftsman of an indictment. The uses to which a statute has been put are strong evidence of the ends it was intended to serve. In this instance the decisions buttress what common sense and a spontaneous reading of the statute independently make clear, and give added significance to repeated reenactment without substantial change.*fn8 All the evidence points to the same conclusion: that § 241 applies only to interference

[ 341 U.S. Page 82]

     with rights which arise from the relation of the victim and the Federal Government, and not to interference by State officers with rights which the Federal Government merely guarantees from abridgment by the States.

To reject this evidence and hold the indictment valid under § 241 not only involves a new, distorting construction of an old statute. It also makes for redundancy and confusion and raises some needless constitutional problems. For if we assume that a conspiracy such as that described here is under color of State law, it can be reached under § 242 and the general conspiracy statute. Indeed, the defendants before us were indicted and tried for violation of § 242; the conviction of one of them under that section is before us in No. 365, post, p. 97. Unlike § 242, the section now before us is not qualified by the requirement that the defendants have acted "willfully," and the very specialized content attributed to that word was found essential to sustaining § 242 in Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91. Nor does the defined crime have as an ingredient that the conspiracy be under color of State law. Criminal statutes should be given the meaning their language most obviously invites. Their scope should not be extended to conduct not clearly within their terms.

We therefore hold that including an allegation that the defendants acted under color of State law in an indictment under § 241 does not extend the protection of the section to rights which the Federal Constitution merely guarantees against abridgment by the States. Since under this interpretation of the statute the indictment must fall, the judgment of the court below is


[For opinion of MR. JUSTICE BLACK, concurring in the result, see post, p. 85.]

[For dissenting opinion of MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, joined by MR. JUSTICE REED, MR. JUSTICE BURTON and MR. JUSTICE CLARK, see post, p. 87.]


Criminal Civil Rights Legislation:

Comparative Table of Successive Phraseology

Material deleted by next subsequent revision shown in brackets.

Material added or substituted in revision shown in italics.

Act of April 9, 1866, 14 Stat. 27 Act of May 31, 1870, 16 Stat.

141, 144

Sec. 6. And be if further en-

acted, That if two or more persons

[shall band or] conspire [to-

gether], or go in disguise upon the

[public] highway, or upon the

premises of another, with intent to

[violate any provision of this act,

or to] injure, oppress, threaten, or

intimidate any citizen with intent

to prevent or hinder his free exer-

cise and enjoyment of any right or

privilege [granted or] secured to

him by the Constitution or laws of

the United States, or because of

his having exercised the same, such

persons [shall be held guilty of

felony, and, on conviction there-

of,] shall be fined or ...

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