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Law School Case Brief

Pierson v. Ray - 386 U.S. 547, 87 S. Ct. 1213 (1967)


The defense of good faith and probable cause, which may be available to police officers in the common-law action for false arrest and imprisonment, is also available to them in an action under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983.


Petitioners, members of a group of clergy on a "prayer pilgrimage" to promote racial integration, attempted to use a segregated interstate bus terminal waiting room in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961. They were arrested by respondent policemen and charged with conduct breaching the peace in violation of Miss. Code Ann. § 2087.5, which the United States Supreme Court four years later held unconstitutional in Thomas v. Mississipi, as applied to similar facts. Petitioners had waived a jury trial and were convicted by respondent municipal police justice. On appeal, one petitioner was accorded a trial de novo and, following a directed verdict in his favor, the cases against the other petitioners were dropped. Petitioners then brought the present action in the District Court for damages under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, which makes liable "every person" who under color of law deprives another person of his civil rights, and at common law for false arrest and imprisonment. The evidence showed that the ministers expected to be arrested on entering a segregated area. Though the witnesses agreed that petitioners had entered the waiting room peacefully, petitioners testified that there was no crowd at the terminal, whereas the police testified that a threatening crowd followed petitioners. The jury found for respondents.

On appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the appellate court held that respondent municipal police justice was immune under both § 1983 and state common law; the appellate court further held respondent policemen had immunity under the state common law of false arrest if they had probable cause to believe § 2087.5 to be valid, because police officers were not required to predict what laws are constitutional. However, the appellate court reversed and remanded for a new trial on the  § 1983 claim against respondent police officers, which opined that, by virtue of Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, policemen had no such immunity under § 1983 where the state statute was subsequently declared invalid. The court remanded the case against the officers for a new trial under § 1983 because of prejudicial cross-examination of petitioners, but ruled that the clergy could not recover if it were shown at the new trial that they had gone to Mississippi in anticipation that they would be illegally arrested. The Fifth Circuit also directed that petitioners were precluded from seeking damages under § 1983. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.


  1. Was a municipal police justice entitled to immunity?
  2. Were the police officers liable for false arrest because the petitioners were proven innocent?


1) Yes. 2) No.


The United States Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded, holding that respondent judge acted within his judicial discretion; though the statute under which petitioners were convicted was found to be unconstitutional after the arrest, the defense of good faith and probable cause was available to respondent police in the § 1983 action and a new trial was necessary because the jury's verdict was influenced by irrelevant and prejudicial evidence. The Court concluded, however, that the substantially undisputed fact that petitioners expected to be arrested did not disqualify them from seeking damages under § 1983 as the court of appeals had directed.

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