Recent Court Decisions: McMillian v. Monroe County, Ala.

Sheriff Was Policymaker for State, Not County, for Purposes of Civil Rights Act Liability.

McMillian v. Monroe County, Ala., 117 S.Ct. 1734, No. 96-542 (1997).

Plaintiff spent six years on Alabama's death row. His murder conviction was eventually reversed on the ground that the state had suppressed exculpatory evidence.

He then sued the county and others under 42 U.S.C. par. 1983 for the allegedly unconstitutional actions of the county sheriff for allegedly suppressing the exculpatory evidence. His theory concerning the county was that the county was liable under par. 19 83 for those actions of its sheriff that constituted county "policy."

In a 5-4 decision and an opinion written by the Chief Justice it was held that the sheriff was a policy maker for the state, not the county. The Court deferred to the court below, 88 F.3d 1573 (11th Cir. 1996), in interpreting state law and concluded that the state's constitutional provisions concerning sheriffs, the historical development of those provisions, and the interpretation given them by the state supreme court supported the county's contention that sheriffs represent the state when acting in the ir law enforcement capacity.

The Chief Justice rejected the argument that this result would create a lack of uniformity in the state by allowing 67 county sheriffs to have different state law enforcement policies in their counties, as well as the argument that this would have a simil ar effect throughout the county by permitting sheriffs to be classified as state officials in some states and county officials in others.

The Court said that the common law itself envisions the possibility that state law enforcement "policies" might vary locally, as particular sheriffs adopted varying practices for arresting criminals or securing evidence. It was convinced that th e nation's federal nature allows the states wide authority to set up their state and local governments as they wish. And it rejected an argument that state and local governments will manipulate local officials' titles in a blatant effort to shield local g overnments from liability.

Justices Ginsberg, Stevens, Souter and Breyer dissented, taking the position that throughout the history of the United States the sheriff has always been the principal law enforcement officer in the county and thus a "policy-maker" for the count y under par. 1983.

Note: As with all the cases discussed on the web pages of LELP, do not assume the law on this subject is the same in your jurisdiction; check with your legal advisor to determine the law in your own jurisdiction and how it would apply in a particula r case.

Copyright (c) 1997 Law Enforcement Legal Publications

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