480 U. S. 386
March 9, 1987
On the basis of some sketchy evidence, Bernard Rumery was arrested on the charge of harassing a witness – the alleged victim – from a sexual assault trial. Based in large part on the alleged victim’s reluctance to testify against Rumery, the prosecution decided to offer him a bargain: all charges would be dropped if he would agree not to file a section 1983 claim against the police department. After some hesitation, Rumery accepted the deal, but several months later he attempted to file a 1983 claim anyway, arguing that the deal he agreed to was invalid.
In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the deal could be enforced. Powell wrote the majority opinion, which said that such agreements were neither per se valid nor per se invalid. Reviewing the facts of the case, he found that the agreement was intelligently and voluntarily entered into, and analogized it to a plea bargain. Powell downplayed concerns that prosecutors would unethically use these agreements to avoid meritorious 1983 liability, and found that sound policy rationales for such agreements existed. In this case, the reluctance of the witness to testify was good reason for offering such a bargain. O’Connor concurred in all but one section of Powell’s opinion, afraid that it suggested such deals would be presumed valid. O’Connor argued that the validity of these deals must be proven.
Stevens dissented, and was joined by Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun. He felt that Rumery’s intelligent and voluntary acquiescence was irrelevant, because even a clearly unethical deal might be agreed to intelligently and voluntarily. Stevens contended that the potential for prosecutorial abuse in offering these deals was enormous, and that few circumstances would ever render such a bargain truly necessary. Finally, he felt that the majority did not give enough weight to the value and importance of section 1983 claims as a means of fighting against unlawful government action.
I’m glad Powell’s side won in this case. Were I a criminal defendant, I would jump at a bargain like the one Rumery was given, and I wouldn’t want that option foreclosed just because it would required me to give up rights, and could possibly be abused. Then again, I’m really not the legally vindictive type, and I doubt I would ever file a 1983 claim anyway.