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Gerstein v. Pugh

Citation. Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U.S. 103, 95 S. Ct. 854, 43 L. Ed. 2d 54, 19 Fed. R. Serv. 2d (Callaghan) 1499 (U.S. Feb. 18, 1975)
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Brief Fact Summary.

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.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

“Whatever procedure a State may adopt, it must provide a fair and reliable determination of probable cause as a condition for any significant pretrial restraint of liberty, and this determination must be made by a judicial officer either before or promptly after arrest.”


The Respondents, Pugh and Henderson (the “Respondents”), were arrested in Dade County Florida and charge under a prosecutor’s information with various offenses. One was denied bail and the other could not post bail. In Florida, an indictment is only needed if a crime is a capital offense. An information is sufficient for all other crimes. The law in Florida forbid a suspect from having a preliminary hearing if they are charged via an information. Also, a habeus corpus was only available in extraordinary circumstances. The only way to obtain a judicial determination of probable cause was a statute allowing a preliminary hearing after 30 days and arraignment, which is often delayed about a month after an arrest. Based on these procedures, an individual charged on an information can be detained for a long period of time solely based on what a prosecutor does.
The Respondents filed a class action against Dade County officials in federal court arguing that they have a constitutional right to a hearing on probable cause and declaratory and injunctive relief. The District Court held that “that the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments give all arrested persons charged by information a right to a judicial hearing on the question of probable cause.” Respondents were ordered to be given an immediate preliminary hearing to determine probable cause for further detention and the Dade County defendants were ordered to promulgate a plan allowing for preliminary hearings in cases instituted by an information. The defendants submitted a plan and the District court made a few changes, but adopted it. It was a very detailed plan.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the District Court’s order pending an appeal, and before the Fifth Circuit heard the appeal, the Dade County judiciary adopted a plan similar to that accepted by the District Court. The Court of Appeals remanded the case for specific findings as to the constitutionality of Dade County system. Before the District Court issued a ruling, the Florida Supreme Court “amended the procedural rules governing preliminary hearings statewide, and the parties agreed that the District Court should direct its inquiry to the new rules rather than the Dade County procedures.”
Pursuant to the new rules “every arrested person must be taken before a judicial officer within 24 hours. This ‘first appearance’ is similar to the ‘first appearance hearing’ ordered by the District Court in all respects but the crucial one: the magistrate does not make a determination of probable cause. The rule amendments also changed the procedure for preliminary hearings, restricting them to felony charges and codifying the rule that no hearings are available to persons charged by information or indictment.”
“In a supplemental opinion the District Court held that the amended rules had not answered the basic constitutional objection, since a defendant charged by information still could be detained pending trial without a judicial determination of probable cause. Reaffirming its original ruling, the District Court declared that the continuation of this practice was unconstitutional. The Court of Appeals modifying the District Court’s decree in minor particulars and suggesting that the form of preliminary hearing provided by the amended Florida rules would be acceptable, as long as it was provided to all defendants in custody pending trial.”


“[W]hether 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[?]”
“[W]hether 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.” “[T]he 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 “[a]lthough 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.”


This case establishes that “a timely judicial determination of probable cause [i]s a prerequisite to detention.”

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