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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Price - 383 U.S. 787, 86 S. Ct. 1152 (1966)


18 U.S.C.S. § 242 applies only where a person indicted has acted "under color" of law. Private persons, jointly engaged with state officials in the prohibited action, are acting "under color" of law for purposes of the statute. To act "under color" of law does not require that the accused be an officer of the state. It is enough that he is a willful participant in joint activity with the state or its agents.


Defendants Cecil Ray Price and two others were Mississippi police officers; 15 other defendants were private citizens. All defendants were alleged to have conspired to deprive three individuals of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The alleged conspiracy involved releasing the victims from jail at night; intercepting, assaulting and killing them; and disposing of their bodies. Its purpose was to "punish" the victims summarily. Two indictments were returned. One indictment (No. 59) charged all defendants with violating 18 U.S.C.S. § 241—making a conspiracy to interfere with a citizen's exercise and enjoyment of rights secured by the Federal Constitution a criminal offense. The other indictment (No. 60) charged all defendants with violating 18 U.S.C.S. § 242—making it a criminal offense willfully to deprive a person under color of law of such rights—by performing the acts contemplated in the conspiracy. At trial in federal district court, the court held the indictment in No. 60 valid as to the police officers, but it was dismissed as to the private defendants on the ground that although the indictment alleged that they had acted "under color" of law, it did not allege that they were acting as officers of the State. The indictment in No. 59 was dismissed by the district court as to all defendants on the ground that § 241 did not include rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.


Were private persons jointly engaged with law enforcement officials in a prohibited action acting under color of law?




The Supreme Court of the United States held that private persons jointly engaged with law enforcement officials in the prohibited action were acting under color of law. Defendants were also charged under a broad federal statute prohibiting a conspiracy to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise of any right guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution. The court held that the statute was not overbroad in its application to defendants.

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