Hurtado v. California

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Hurtado v. California

An 1884 decision of the Supreme Court, Hurtado v. California, 110 U.S. 516, 4 S. Ct. 111, 28 L. Ed. 232, held that states are not required to comply with the Fifth Amendment provision that a criminal prosecution be initiated by an indictment by a Grand Jury.

The constitution of California and various penal statutes provided for the prosecution of a person charged with an offense by information after a Preliminary Hearing before a magistrate with rights to counsel and to cross-examine witnesses, or by indictment with or without a preliminary hearing. In February 1882, the district attorney of Sacramento County filed an information against Joseph Hurtado, charging him with the murder of Jose Stuardo. Hurtado was arraigned, tried, convicted of the crime, and sentenced to death. He unsuccessfully appealed his conviction throughout state appellate courts and brought a writ of error before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Hurtado alleged that his conviction and sentence were void because they were obtained in violation of his rights to Due Process of Law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. He was convicted and sentenced on the basis of an information, not an indictment or presentment by a grand jury as required by the Fifth Amendment and, therefore, was deprived by the state of his liberty without due process.

After reviewing English treatises and numerous cases construing the term due process of law, the Court affirmed Hurtado's conviction. Only persons accused of federal crimes are entitled to a presentment or indictment of a grand jury. The Court refused to declare the proceedings that led to Hurtado's conviction under state law as violative of due process of law. Like an indictment, the information was "merely a preliminary proceeding," which would bring about a final judgment only as a consequence of a regular trial. Since it served the substantial interest of the prisoner and protected the principles of liberty and justice in a manner comparable to an indictment or presentment by a grand jury, an information satisfied the requirements of due process as guaranteed by the Constitution.

The effect of this decision—that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of due process of law does not mandate that an indictment or presentment to a grand jury is necessary for a conviction under state criminal laws to be upheld as legally valid—is still the law after more than one hundred years.