Gerstein v. Pugh Case Brief

Why is the case important?

A county in Florida allowed prisoners to be held for a substantial amount of time without a hearing, based solely on the decision of a prosecutor.

Facts of the case

“Robert Pugh and Nathanial Henderson were arrested in Florida and charged with felony and misdemeanor charges not punishable by death. Pugh was denied bail and Henderson was unable to post a $4,500 bond, so both remained in custody. Florida law only required indictments for capitol offenses, so Pugh and Henderson were charged only by information, without a preliminary hearing and without leave of the court. Florida courts previously held that filing an information foreclosed an accused’s right to a preliminary hearing, and that habeas corpus could not be used except in exceptional circumstances.Pugh and Henderson filed a class action against Dade County officials, claiming a constitutional right to a preliminary hearing on the issue of probable cause. The district court certified the class and held that the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments give all arrested persons charged by information the right to a preliminary hearing. The Florida Supreme Court adopted new rules in an attempt to fix the problem, but on remand, the district court held the rules still violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The court also prescribed detailed procedures to protect that right. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part, modifying minor portions of the district court’s prescribed procedures.”


Whether a person arrested and held for trial under a prosecutor’s information is constitutionally entitled to a judicial determination of probable cause for pretrial restraint of liberty?
Whether the adversary hearing ordered by the District Court and approved by the Court of Appeals is required by the Constitution?


To implement the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unfounded invasions of liberty and privacy, the Court has required that the existence of probable cause be decided by a neutral and detached magistrate whenever possible. The Fourth Amendment requires a judicial determination of probable cause as a prerequisite to extended restraint of liberty following arrest. At common law it was customary, if not obligatory, for an arrested person to be brought before a justice of the peace shortly after arrest. The justice of the peace would ‘examine’ the prisoner and the witnesses to determine whether there was reason to believe the prisoner had committed a crime. If there was, the suspect would be committed to jail or bailed pending trial. If not, he would be discharged from custody. The initial determination of probable cause also could be reviewed by higher courts on a writ of habeas corpus. This practice furnished the model for criminal procedure in America immediately fo
llowing the adoption of the and there are indications that the Framers of the Bill of Rights regarded it as a model for a ‘reasonable’ seizure.
Dade County defends the prosecutor’s decision to file an information is itself a determination of probable cause that furnishes sufficient reason to detain a defendant pending trial. However, the court recognizes although a conscientious decision that the evidence warrants prosecution affords a measure of protection against unfounded detention, we do not think prosecutorial judgment standing alone meets the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. Indeed, we think the Court’s previous decisions compel disapproval of the Florida procedure.
In holding that the prosecutor’s assessment of probable cause is not sufficient alone to justify restraint of liberty pending trial, the majority does not imply that the accused is entitled to judicial oversight or review of the decision to prosecute. Instead, we adhere to the Court’s prior holding that a judicial hearing is not prerequisite to prosecution by information. Nor do we retreat from the established rule that illegal arrest or detention does not void a subsequent conviction. Thus, as the Court of Appeals noted below, although a suspect who is presently detained may challenge the probable cause for that confinement, a conviction will not be vacated on the ground that the defendant was detained pending trial without a determination of probable cause.
Various adversary safeguards are not essential for the probable cause determination required by the Fourth Amendment. The sole issue is whether there is probable cause for detaining the arrested person pending further proceedings. This issue can be determined reliably without an adversary hearing. The standard is the same as that for arrest. That standard – probable cause to believe the suspect has committed a crime – traditionally has been decided by a magistrate in a nonadversary proceeding on hearsay and written testimony, and the Court has approved these informal modes of proof.
The use of an informal procedure is justified not only by the lesser consequences of a probable cause determination but also by the nature of the determination itself. It does not require the fine resolution of conflicting evidence that a reasonable-doubt or even a preponderance standard demands, and credibility determinations are seldom crucial in deciding whether the evidence supports a reasonable belief in guilt. This is not to say that confrontation and cross-examination might not enhance the reliability of probable cause determinations in some cases. In most cases, however, their value would be too slight to justify holding, as a matter of constitutional principle, that these formalities and safeguards designed for trial must also be employed in making the Fourth Amendment determination of probable cause.


“The Supreme Court of the United States held that under the Fourth Amendment, a person arrested without a warrant and charged by information with a state offense was entitled to a timely judicial determination by a neutral magistrate of probable cause for significant pretrial restraint of his liberty

  • the prosecutor’s decision to file an information was not alone satisfying the Fourth Amendment’s requirements. However, the Court averred that there was no constitutional requirement that the procedure adopted by a state for determining probable cause for detention must include the full panoply of adversary safeguards such as the rights to counsel, confrontation, cross-examination, and compulsory process for witnesses. Thus, the Court remanded the case for reconsideration of the propriety of procedures for the determination of probable cause required by the Fourth Amendment.”
    • Case Brief: 1975
    • Petitioner: Richard E. Gerstein, State Attorney for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida
    • Respondent: Robert Pugh, Nathaniel Henderson, Thomas Turner, Gary Faulk on their own behalf and on behalf of other similarly situated
    • Decided by: Burger Court

    Citation: 420 US 103 (1975)
    Argued: Mar 25, 1974
    ReArgued: Oct 21, 1974
    Decided: Feb 18, 1975