South v. Maryland (1855) – Case Brief Summary (U.S. Supreme Court)

In South v. Maryland (1855) 59 U.S. 396, Pottle was kidnapped for four days by "certain evil-disposed persons . . . until he paid them the sum of $2,500 for his enlargement."

Despite Pottle's pleas, the sheriff refused or neglected to protect him. Pottle sued the sheriff and his sureties in the name of the State of Maryland, on the sheriff's bond faithfully to perform his office.

The Supreme Court reversed a judgment upon a jury verdict for plaintiff in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Maryland.

"Justice Grier stated for the Court:

It is an undisputed principle of the common law, that for a breach of a public duty, an officer is punishable by indictment; but where he acts ministerially, and is bound to render certain services to individuals, for a compensation or fee in salary, he is liable for acts of misfeasance or non-feasance to the party who is injured by them." (59 U.S. at 402-03.)

In that case a plaintiff, kidnapped and held for ransom, contended that the sheriff knew about the incident but neglected to "protect and defend" him.

The Court noted the plaintiff did not allege the sheriff breached a duty in which the sheriff was personally interested, such as execution of a writ, but instead the plaintiff alleged that the sheriff neglected to "preserve the public peace ." (South , 59 U.S. at 401.)

The Court emphasized that the sheriff’s alleged failure to preserve the public peace was a "public duty, for neglect of which he is amenable to the public, and punishable by indictment only." (South , 59 U.S. at 403.)

The Supreme Court reasoned that such an interpretation was consistent with precedent, as "no instance could be found where a civil action was sustained against a sheriff for his default or misbehavior as conservator of the peace by those who have suffered injury to their property or persons through the violence of mobs, riots, or insurrections." (South , 59 U.S. at 403.)

The Supreme Court explained that the sheriff owed no duty to the plaintiff because the individual plaintiff’s rights were not "restrained or hindered by the malicious act of the sheriff." (South , 59 U.S. at 403.)

The Supreme Court held that plaintiff had failed to state a cause of action against the sheriff where it was alleged that plaintiff had been held by certain evildoers for four days and until he paid a ransom of $2500, while the sheriff stood idly by and failed to enforce the peace of the State of Maryland. The Court held plaintiff had alleged no specific individual right withheld by the sheriff, nor had the sheriff been charged with any misfeasance or non-feasance in his ministerial capacity in the execution of any process in which the plaintiff was concerned.

The Court stated:

"The powers and duties of conservator of the peace exercised by the sheriff are not strictly judicial; but he may be said to act as the chief magistrate of his county, wielding the executive power for the preservation of the public peace. It is a public duty, for neglect of which he is amenable to the public, and punishable by indictment only."

the Supreme noted:

"The sheriff, being present, the plaintiff, Pottle, applied to him for protection, and requested him to keep the peace of the State of Maryland, he, the said sheriff, having power and authority so to do. That the sheriff neglected and refused to protect and defend the plaintiff, and to keep the peace, wherefore, it is charged, `the sheriff did not well and truly execute and perform the duties required of him by the laws of said State'. . . . It assumes as a postulate, that every breach or neglect of a public duty subjects the officer to a civil suit by any individual who, in consequence thereof, has suffered loss or injury . . . because he has not `executed and performed all the duties required of and imposed on him by the laws of the State.'"