Law School Case Brief
Mesa v. California - 489 U.S. 121, 109 S. Ct. 959 (1989)
Removals of prosecutions on account of acts done in enforcement of the revenue or prohibition laws or under color of them properly include those acts committed by a federal officer in defense of his life, threatened while enforcing or attempting to enforce the law. Such acts of defense are really part of the exercise of his official authority. They are necessary to make the enforcement effective. Accordingly, the Supreme Court of the United States upholds the constitutionality of the federal officer removal statute, 28 U.S.C.S. § 1442, precisely because the statute predicates removal on the presence of a federal defense. It ought, therefore, to be considered as settled that the constitutional powers of Congress to authorize the removal of criminal cases for alleged offences against state laws from state courts to the circuit courts of the United States, when there arises a federal question in them, is as ample as its power to authorize the removal of a civil case.
In unrelated incidents, the State of California issued criminal complaints against two mailtruck drivers who were employed by the United States Postal Service in Santa Clara County, California. The State charged: (1) the first driver with misdemeanor-manslaughter and driving outside a laned roadway after the driver's mailtruck allegedly collided with and killed a bicyclist; and (2) the second driver with speeding and failure to yield after the driver's mailtruck allegedly collided with a police car. The two drivers were arraigned in the San Jose Municipal Court of Santa Clara County, but before their trial dates, the local United States Attorney filed removal petitions in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, alleging in each petition that the state criminal complaint ought to be removed to the federal district court because the state charges arose from an accidents involving the drivers, which accidents occurred while the drivers were on duty and acting in the scope of Postal Service employment. The district court granted the United States' petitions for removal and denied California's motions for remand. After the State filed mandamus petitions with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the appellate court consolidated the petitions, granted a writ of mandamus ordering the district court to deny the United States' petitions for removal and to remand the prosecutions for trial in the California state courts. The appellate court further expressed the view that federal postal workers may not remove state criminal prosecutions to federal court when they raise no colorable claim of federal immunity or other federal defense.
Were defendants entitled to removal from state court to federal court?
The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the denial of removal defendants' criminal prosecutions to federal court from state court. While both defendants were federal employees on duty at the time of the incidents, they were not entitled to removal to federal court, as they did not raise a colorable claim of federal immunity or other federal defense. Based on an unbroken line of cases extending back nearly a century and a quarter, the Court held that the federal officer removal statute required the averment of a federal defense, which was lacking in the instant proceedings.
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