Conduct Which Amounts To Abuse Of One's Official Place
the indictment's particularization of the rights infringed and the acts infringing them. If it is not sufficient in either respect, in these as in other cases the motion to quash or one for a bill of particulars is at the defendant's disposal. The decided cases demonstrate that accused persons have had little or no difficulty to ascertain the rights they have been charged with transgressing or the acts of transgression. So it was with the defendants in this case. They were not puzzled to know for what they were indicted, as their proof and their defense upon the law conclusively show. They simply misconceived that the victim had no federal rights and that what they had done was not a crime within the federal power to penalize. That kind of error relieves no one from penalty. Screws v. United States, 325 US 91, 126-7 (1945) MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE, concurring in the result.
Generally state officials know something of the individual's basic legal rights. If they do not, they should, for they assume that duty when they assume their office. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for men in general. It is less an excuse for men whose special duty is to apply it, and therefore to know and observe it. If their knowledge is not comprehensive, state officials know or should know when they pass the limits of their authority, so far at any rate that their action exceeds honest error of judgment and amounts to abuse of their office and its function. When they enter such a domain in dealing with the citizen's rights, they should do so at their peril, whether that 130#####130 be created by state or federal law. For their sworn oath and their first duty are to uphold the Constitution, then only the law of the state which too is bound by the charter. Since the statute, as I think, condemns only something more than error of judgment, made in honest effort at once to apply and to follow the law, cf. United States v. Murdock, 290 U.S. 389, officials who violate it must act in intentional or reckless disregard of individual rights and cannot be ignorant that they do great wrong. This being true, they must be taken to act at peril of incurring the penalty placed upon such conduct by the federal law, as they do of that the state imposes.
What has been said supplies all the case requires to be decided on the question of criminal intent. If the criminal act is limited, as I think it must be and the statute intends, to infraction of constitutional rights, including rights secured by the Fourteenth Amendment, by conduct which amounts to abuse of one's official place or reckless disregard of duty, no undue hazard or burden can be placed on state officials honestly seeking to perform the rightful functions of their office. Others are not entitled to greater protection.
But, it is said, a penumbra of rights may be involved, which none can know until decision has been made and infraction may occur before it is had. It seems doubtful this could be true in any case involving the abuse of official function which the statute requires and, if it could, that one guilty of such an abuse should have immunity for that reason. Furthermore, the doubtful character of the 131#####131 right infringed could give reason at the most to invalidate the particular charge, not for outlawing the statute or narrowly restricting its application in advance of compelling occasion.
For there is a body of well-established, clear-cut fundamental rights, including many secured by the Fourteenth Amendment, to all of which the sections may and do apply, without specific enumeration and without creating hazards of uncertainty for conduct or defense. Others will enter that category. So far, at the least when they have done so, the sections should stand without question of their validity. Beyond this, the character of the act proscribed and the intent it necessarily implies would seem to afford would-be violators all of notice the law requires, that they act at peril of the penalty it places on their misconduct. Screws v. United States, 325 US 91, 129-31 (1945) MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE, concurring in the result.
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