In The

Supreme Court of the United States




Decided March 9, 1987

Justice O’Connor, Concurring

Topic: Civil Rights*Court vote: 5–4
Note: No other Justices joined this opinion.
Citation: 480 U.S. 386 Docket: 85–1449Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

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JUSTICE O'CONNOR, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

I join in Parts I, II, III-A, IV, and V of the Court's opinion. More particularly, I join the Court in disapproving the Court of Appeals' broad holding that a criminal defendant's promise not to sue local governments and officials for constitutional violations arising out of his arrest and prosecution, given in exchange for the prosecutor's agreement to dismiss pending criminal charges, is void as against public policy under all circumstances. I agree with the Court that a case-by-case approach appropriately balances the important interests on both sides of the question of the enforceability of these agreements, and that, on the facts of this particular case, Bernard Rumery's covenant not to sue is enforceable. I write separately, however, in order to set out the factors that lead me to conclude that this covenant should be enforced, and to emphasize that it is the burden of those relying upon such covenants to establish that the agreement is neither involuntary nor the product of an abuse of the criminal process.

As the Court shows, ante at 480 U. S. 395 -396, 480 U. S. 398, there are substantial policy reasons for permitting release-dismissal bargains to be struck in appropriate cases. Certainly some § 1983 litigation is meritless, and the inconvenience and distraction of public officials caused by such suits is not inconsiderable. Moreover, particular release-dismissal agreements may serve bona fide criminal justice goals. Here, for example, the protection of Mary Deary, the complaining witness in an aggravated sexual assault case, was an important, legitimate criminal justice objective served by the release-dismissal agreement. Similarly, prosecutors may legitimately believe that, though the police properly defused a volatile situation by arresting a minor misdemeanant, the public interest in further prosecution is outweighed by the cost of litigation. Sparing the local community the expense of litigation associated with some minor crimes for which there is little or no public interest in prosecution may be a legitimate objective of a release-dismissal agreement. See Hoines v. Barney's Club, Inc., 28 Cal.3d 603, 610-611, n. 7, 620 P.2d 628, 633, n. 7 (1980).

On the other hand, as the Court acknowledges, release-dismissal agreements potentially threaten the integrity of the criminal process and preclude vindication of federal civil rights. Permitting such releases may tempt public officials to bring frivolous criminal charges in order to deter meritorious civil complaints. The risk and expense of a criminal trial can easily intimidate even an innocent person whose civil and constitutional rights have been violated. Ante at 480 U. S. 393. The coercive power of criminal process may be twisted to serve the end of suppressing complaints against official abuse, to the detriment not only of the victim of such abuse but also of society as a whole.

In addition, the availability of the release option may tempt officials to ignore their public duty by dropping meritorious criminal prosecutions in order to avoid the risk, expense, and publicity of a §1983 suit. Ante at 480 U. S. 395. The public has an interest in seeing its laws faithfully executed. But officials may give more weight to the private interest in seeing a civil claim settled than to the public interest in seeing the guilty convicted. By introducing extraneous considerations into the criminal process, the legitimacy of that process may be compromised. Release-dismissal bargains risk undermining faith in the fairness of those who administer the criminal process. Finally, the execution of release-dismissal agreements may result in having to determine whether the prosecutor violated any of his ethical obligations as a lawyer. Ante at 480 U. S. 395, n. 4.

As the Court indicates, a release-dismissal agreement is not directly analogous to a plea bargain. Ante at 480 U. S. 393, n. 3. The legitimacy of plea bargaining depends in large measure upon eliminating extraneous considerations from the process. See Santobello v. New York, 404 U. S. 257, 404 U. S. 260 -261 (1971); Brady v. United States, 397 U. S. 742, 397 U. S. 753 (1970); ALI, Model Code of Pre-Arraignment Procedure § 350.5(2) (1975). No court would knowingly permit a prosecutor to agree to accept a defendant's plea to a lesser charge in exchange for the defendant's cash payment to the police officers who arrested him. Rather, the prosecutor is permitted to consider only legitimate criminal justice concerns in striking his bargain -concerns such as rehabilitation, allocation of criminal justice resources, the strength of the evidence against the defendant, and the extent of his cooperation with the authorities. The central problem with the release-dismissal agreement is that public criminal justice interests are explicitly traded against the private financial interest of the individuals involved in the arrest and prosecution. Moreover, plea bargaining takes place only under judicial supervision, an important check against abuse. Ante at 480 U. S. 393, n. 3. Release-dismissal agreements are often reached between the prosecutor and defendant with little or no judicial oversight.

Nevertheless, the dangers of the release-dismissal agreement do not preclude its enforcement in all cases. The defendants in a § 1983 suit may establish that a particular release executed in exchange for the dismissal of criminal charges was voluntarily made, not the product of prosecutorial overreaching, and in the public interest. But they must prove that this is so; the courts should not presume it, as I fear portions of Part III-B of the plurality opinion may imply.

Many factors may bear on whether a release was voluntary, and not the product of overreaching, some of which come readily to mind. The knowledge and experience of the criminal defendant and the circumstances of the execution of the release, including, importantly, whether that defendant was counseled, are clearly relevant. The nature of the criminal charges that are pending is also important, for the greater the charge, the greater the coercive effect. The existence of a legitimate criminal justice objective for obtaining the release will support its validity. And, importantly, the possibility of abuse is clearly mitigated if the release-dismissal agreement is executed under judicial supervision.

Close examination of all the factors in this case leads me to concur in the Court's decision that this covenant not to sue is enforceable. There is ample evidence in the record concerning the circumstances of the execution of this agreement. Testimony of the prosecutor, defense counsel, and Rumery himself leave little doubt that the agreement was entered into voluntarily. Ante at 480 U. S. 390 -391. While the charge pending against Rumery was serious -subjecting him to up to seven years in prison, N.H.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 641:5(1)(b) (1986) -it is one of the lesser felonies under New Hampshire law, and a long prison term was probably unlikely, given the absence of any prior criminal record and the weaknesses in the case against Rumery. Finally, as the Court correctly notes, the prosecutor had a legitimate reason to enter into this agreement directly related to his criminal justice function. The prosecutor testified that:

I had been advised by Chief Barrett that Mary Deary did not want to testify against Mr. Rumery. The witness tampering charge would have required Mary Deary to testify. She would have been the primary source of evidence against Mr. Rumery. There was still considerable concern about Mary Deary, because the David Champy case was still pending. I think that was a particular sensitive type of case where you are dealing with a victim of an alleged aggravated felonious sexual assault. And I think I was taking into consideration the fact that I had her as a victim of one case, and now, the State was in a position of perhaps having to force her to testify against her will, perhaps causing more trauma or upset to her forcing her to go through more things than what I felt comfortable with doing. So that was one of the considerations I was taking into play at that time, that I had been informed that Mary Deary did not want to go forward with the prosecution, that she felt she had gone through enough.

App. 52. Thus, Mary Deary's emotional distress, her unwillingness to testify against Rumery, presumably in later civil as well as criminal proceedings, and the necessity of her testimony in the pending sexual assault case against David Champy all support the prosecutor's judgment that the charges against Rumery should be dropped if further injury to Deary, and therefore the Champy case, could thereby be avoided.

Against the convincing evidence that Rumery voluntarily entered into the agreement and that it served the public interest, there is only Rumery's blanket claim that agreements such as this one are inherently coercive. While it would have been preferable, and made this an easier case, had the release-dismissal agreement been concluded under some form of judicial supervision, I concur in the Court's judgment, and all but Part III-B of its opinion, that Rumery's § 1983 suit is barred by his valid, voluntary release.

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