Steffel v. Thompson

PETITIONER:Richard Guy Steffel
RESPONDENT:John R. Thompson, et al.
LOCATION:North DeKalb Shopping Mall

DOCKET NO.: 72-5581
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 415 US 452 (1974)
ARGUED: Nov 13, 1973
DECIDED: Mar 19, 1974
GRANTED: Feb 26, 1973

Howard Moore, Jr. – for petitioner
Lawrence M. Cohen – for respondents

Facts of the case

On October 8, 1970, Richard Guy Steffel and other individuals were distributing flyers protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War on the exterior sidewalk of the North DeKalb Shopping Center. Employees asked them to stop, but they did not, so the employees called the police. The police informed them that they would be arrested under a Georgia criminal statute if they did not stop, so they left. The next day Steffel and another individual returned to hand out flyers. The police were called again, and Steffel left to avoid arrest. The other individual, however, was arrested.

Steffel sued and argued that his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated because his fear of being arrested kept him from distributing flyers. The district court dismissed the action and denied all relief after it found no evidence that the state acted in bad faith and therefore there was no active controversy. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.


Does the case present an actual and active controversy?

Can a federal court grant declaratory relief against the enforcement of a state statute when a criminal proceeding is pending?

Media for Steffel v. Thompson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 13, 1973 in Steffel v. Thompson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 19, 1974 in Steffel v. Thompson

Warren E. Burger:

The disposition of number 72-5581, Steffel against Thompson will be announced by Mr. Justice Brennan.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

In this case, police officers threatened the petitioner with prosecution under Georgia’s criminal trespass law if he didn’t stop handbilling at a Georgia shopping center to protest our involvement in Vietnam.

Petitioner thereupon, following the treat, brought this action in federal district of Georgia for judgment declaring that application to him on the Georgia trespass of law would violate his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

District Court dismissed the suit on the ground that in the absence of proof that the police had or would act in bad faith, this Court’s 1971 decisions in Younger v. Harris and related cases forbade the District Court from entertaining the suit and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

We reverse.

We hold that federal declaratory relief is not precluded, when a prosecution based upon an assertedly unconstitutional state statute, although threatened, is not in fact begun and therefore is not pending even if a showing of bad faith enforcement or other special circumstances has not been made.

Mr. Justice Stewart joined by the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Rehnquist also joined by the Chief Justice and Mr. Justice White although all joining the court’s opinion, have also filed concurring opinions.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Mr. Justice Brennan.