South v. Maryland/Opinion of the Court

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South v. Maryland
Opinion of the Court by Robert Cooper Grier

United States Supreme Court

59 U.S. 396

South  v.  Maryland

In this case a verdict was rendered for the plaintiff in the court below, and the defendant moved, in arrest of judgment, 'that the matters set out in the declaration of the plaintiff are not sufficient, in law, to support the action.' If it be found that the court erred in overruling this motion and in entering judgment on the verdict, a consideration of the other points raised on the trial will be unnecessary.

The action is brought on the official bond of South, as sheriff of Washington county. The declaration sets forth the condition of the bond at length. The breach alleged is, in substance, 'that while Pottle was engaged about his lawful business, certain evildisposed persons came about him, hindered and prevented him, threatened his life, with force of arms demanded of him a large sum of money, and imprisoned and detained him for the space of four days, and until he paid them the sum of $2,500 for his enlargement.'

That South, the sheriff, being present, the plaintiff, Pottle, applied to him for protection, and requested him to keep the peace of the State of Maryland, he, the said sheriff, having power and authority so to do. That the sheriff neglected and refused to protect and defend the plaintiff, and to keep the peace, wherefore, it is charged, 'the sheriff did not well and truly execute and perform the duties required of him by the laws of said State;' and thereby the said writing obligatory became forfeited, and action accrued to the plaintiff.

This declaration does not charge the sheriff with a breach of his duty in the execution of any writ or process in which Pottle, the real plaintiff in this case, was personally interested, but a neglect or refusal to preserve the public peace, in consequence of which the plaintiff suffered great wrong and injury from the unlawful violence of a mob. It assumes as a postulate, that every breach or neglect of a public duty subjects the officer to a civil suit by any individual who, in consequence thereof, has suffered loss or injury; and consequently, that the sheriff and his sureties are liable to this suit on his bond, because he has not 'executed and performed all the duties required of and imposed on him by the laws of the State.'

The powers and duties of the sheriff are usually arranged under four distinct classes:--

1. In his judicial capacity, he formerly held the sheriff's tourn, or county courts, and performed other functions which need not be enumerated.

2. As king's bailiff, he seized to the king's use all escheats, forfeitures, waifs, wrecks, estrays, &c.

3. As conservator of the peace in his county or bailiwick, he is the representative of the king, or sovereign power of the State for that purpose. He has the care of the county, and, though forbidden by magna charta to act as a justice of the peace in trial of criminal cases, he exercises all the authority of that office where the public peace was concerned. He may upon view, without writ or process, commit to prison all persons who break the peace or attempt to break it; he may award process of the peace, and bind any one in recognizance to keep it. He is bound, ex officio, to pursue and take all traitors, murderers, felons, and other misdoers, and commit them to jail for safe custody. For these purposes he may command the posse comitatus or power of the country; and this summons, every one over the age of fifteen years is bound to obey, under pain of fine and imprisonment.

4. In his ministerial capacity he is bound to execute all processes issuing from the courts of justice. He is keeper of the county jail, and answerable for the safe-keeping of prisoners. He summons and returns juries, arrests, imprisons, and executes the sentence of the court, &c. &c. 1 Black. Com. 343; 2 Hawk, P. C. C. 8, § 4, &c. &c.

Originally, the office of sheriff could be held by none but men of large estate, who were able to support the retinue of followers which the dignity of his office required, and to answer in damages to those who were injured by his neglect of duty in the performance of his ministerial functions. In more modern times, a bond with sureties supplies the place of personal wealth. The object of these bonds is security, not the imposition of liabilities upon the sheriff, to which he was not subject at common law. The specific enumeration of duties in the bond in this case includes none but those that are classed as ministerial. The general expression, in conclusion, should be construed to include only such other duties of the same kind as were not specially enumerated. To entitle a citizen to sue on this bond to his own use, he must show such a default as would entitle him to recover against the sheriff in an action on the case. When the sheriff is punishable by indictment as for a misdemeanor, in cases of a breach of some public duty, his sureties are not bound to suffer in his place, or to indemnify individuals for the consequences of such a criminal neglect.

It is an undisputed principle of the common law, that for a breach of a public duty, an officer is punishable by indictment; but where he acts ministerially, and is bound to render certain services to individuals, for a compensation in fees or salary, he is liable for acts of misfeasance or non-feasance to the party who is injured by them.

The powers and duties of conservator of the peace exercised by the sheriff are not strictly judicial; but he may be said to act as the chief magistrate of his county, wielding the executive power for the preservation of the public peace. It is a public duty, for neglect of which he is amenable to the public, and punishable by indictment only.

The history of the law for centuries proves this to be the case. Actions against the sheriff for a breach of his ministerial duties in the execution of process are to be found in almost every book of reports. But no instance can be found where a civil action has been sustained against him for his default or misbehavior as conservator of the peace, by those who have suffered injury to their property or persons through the violence of mobs, riots, or insurrections.

In the case of Entick v. Carrington, State Trials, vol. 19, page 1062, Lord Camden remarks: 'No man ever heard of an action against a conservator of the peace, as such.'

The case of Ashby v. White, 2 Lord Raym. 938, has been often quoted to show that a sheriff may be liable to a civil action where he has acted in a judicial, rather than a ministerial capacity. This was an action brought by a citizen entitled to vote for member of parliament, against the sheriff for refusing his vote at an election. Gould, justice, thought the action would not lie, because the sheriff acted as a judge. Powis, because, though not strictly a judge, he acted quasi judicially. But Holt, C. J., decided that the action would lie: 1. 'Because the plaintiff had a right or privilege. 2. That, by the act of the officer, he was hindered from the enjoyment of it.' 3. By the finding of the jury the act was done maliciously. The later cases all concur in the doctrine, that where the officer is held liable to a civil action for acts not simply ministerial, the plaintiff must allege and prove each of these propositions. See Cullen v. Morris, 2 Starkie, N. P. C.; Harman v. Tappenden, 1 East, 555, &c. &c.

The declaration in the case before us is clearly not within the principles of these decisions. It alleges no special individual right, privilegs, or franchise in the plaintiff, from the enjoyment of which he has been restrained or hindered by the malicious act of the sheriff; nor does it charge him with any misfeasance or non-feasance in his ministerial capacity, in the execution of any process in which the plaintiff was concerned. Consequently, we are of opinion that the declaration sets forth no sufficient cause of action.

The judgment of the circuit court is therefore reversed.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).

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