Hurtado v. California Case Brief

Summary of Hurtado v. California
Citation: 110 U.S. 516 (1884)

Relevant Facts: Joseph Hurtado discovered that his wife had been unfaithful to him, having carried on an affair with a family friend. Hurtado sought to remedy the situation both by sending his wife away and by assaulting her lover. After Hurtado’s efforts proved ineffective and terminated the extramarital liaison, he shot and killed his wife’s lover. He was arrested and charged with murder. However, under California law (and the California Constitution) Hurtado was never indicted by a grand jury. Rather, the State of California prosecuted Hurtado based on an information subject to the examination of a magistrate. The magistrate in Hurtado’s case made the required finding that sufficient evidence existed to proceed to trial. At trial, Hurtado was convicted and sentenced to death. He appealed his conviction, arguing that California had violated his Due Process rights under the Fourth Amendment by failing to secure a grand jury indictment.

Issue: Does the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment require states to secure grand jury indictments in order to prosecute defendants for felonies?

Holding: No, the Fourteenth Amendment did not incorporate the grand jury requirement, nor does due process require grand jury indictments.

Reasoning : Justice Matthews delivered the majority opinion. First, the majority looked to history in explaining both the rationale behind and general requirements for grand jury indictments. In explaining Lord Coke, who argued grand jury indictments were necessary, the Court pointed out that while Lord Coke supported grand jury indictments, he did not argue they should be required for misdemeanors. This, according to the majority, evidenced that grand jury indictments were not universal, even in serious matters subjecting defendants to jail time. Next the Court explained that just because a particular procedure has been used- even regularly- that does not mandate the conclusion that failure to follow that particular procedure violates due process. While the Court looks to both history and constitutional limitations, due process does not have a single, fixed meaning with a required list of all particulars. While the Court may conclude that some requirements are necessary, fundamental, and required, that is not the same as saying every conceivable procedure in widespread usage is constitutionally required. Furthermore, Justice Matthews explained that the requirements of due process are not forever fixed, instead allowing for adaption. For example, even the requirement for grand jury indictment does not mean the same thing as it once did. Historically, grand juries indicted based on common knowledge rather than presentation of evidence. It would be a strange result, Justice Matthews argued, to prevent greater protections afforded by a magistrate’s hearing than available by uniformed grand jurors. Next, the Court explained that the constitution served as a check on legislative authority, primarily as a means to safeguard liberty and not as a means to establish universal, required procedures. Turning to the constitutional text, the Court made two observations. First, the right to a grand jury is listed separate from general due process rights in the Fifth Amendment, suggesting that the Framers did not include the right to trial by jury under any necessary understanding of due process. Second, the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment included a due process guarantee- enforceable against the states- but did not separately protect the right to grand jury indictment. Based on those observations, the Court concluded that grand jury indictments are not necessary to basic due process guarantees. Furthermore, they determined that the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment did not intend to mandate state use of grand juries in criminal cases. Finally, the Court explained that informations had a long history of use in criminal cases too, and they could not conclude that the procedure adopted by California departed from any recognized necessity in order to safeguard Hurtado’s due process rights.

Dissent: Justice Harlan dissented, and in a lengthy opinion explained that due process as historically understood demands indictment by a grand jury for all capital offenses. Quoting Blackstone, Justice Harlan pointed out that in order to deprive a man of his life, twenty-four citizens had to agree on his guilt (twelve in the grand jury and twelve in the petit jury). Furthermore, quoting Lord Coke, Justice Harlan explained that informations were impermissible at common law for capital cases. Quoting state constitutions, early American authorities, and contemporaneous writings, Justice Harlan suggested that due process could not mean one thing for the federal government and another for the states. Rather, he concluded, the fundamental guarantees and substantial safeguards of the federal constitution must apply to state proceedings as well. Concluding, Justice Harlan explained that a right a common law, recognized by the Federal Constitution, and generally protected by specific provision in state constitutions is fundamental to due process and constitutionally required under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Conclusion: The Court declined to incorporate the grand jury requirement of the Fifth Amendment into the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. While selective incorporation would proceed in the decades following this case, the Court has never reversed the holding here and states are not required to use a grand jury system from criminal indictments.

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