The Fifth Amendment states, among other things, that the government cannot deprive someone of their life, liberty, or property without following certain procedures. This is known as "due process," which is further broken down into two concepts: procedural due process and substantive due process. This article discusses procedural due process under the Fifth Amendment.
“No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law;"
United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation
In 1855, the Court first attempted to assess its standards for judging what was due process. At issue was the constitutionality of summary proceedings under a distress warrant to levy on the lands of a government debtor. The Court first ascertained that Congress was not free to make any process due process. To what principles, then, are we to resort to ascertain whether this process, enacted by congress, is due process? To this the answer must be twofold. We must examine the constitution itself, to see whether this process be in conflict with any of its provisions. If not found to be so, we must look to those settled usages and modes of proceedings existing in the common and statute law of England, before the emigration of our ancestors, and which are shown not to have been unsuited to their civil and political condition by having been acted on by them after the settlement of this country. A survey of history disclosed that the law in England seemed always to have contained a summary method, not unlike the law in question, for recovering debts owed the Crown. Therefore, [t]ested by the common and statute law of England prior to the emigration of our ancestors, and by the laws of many of the States at the time of the adoption of this amendment, the proceedings authorized by the act of 1820 cannot be denied to be due process of law.1
This formal approach to the meaning of due process could obviously have limited both Congress and the state legislatures in the development of procedures unknown to English law. But when California’s abandonment of indictment by grand jury was challenged, the Court refused to be limited by the fact that such proceeding was the English practice and that Coke had indicated that it was a proceeding required as the law of the land. The Court in Murray’s Lessee meant that a process of law, which is not otherwise forbidden, must be taken to be due process of law, if it can show the sanction of settled usage both in England and in this country; but it by no means follows that nothing else can be due process of law. To hold that only historical, traditional procedures can constitute due process, the Court said, would be to deny every quality of the law but its age, and to render it incapable of progress or improvement.2 Therefore, the Court concluded, due process must be held to guarantee not particular forms of procedures, but the very substance of individual rights to life, liberty, and property. The Due Process Clause prescribed the limits of those fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions. It follows that any legal proceeding enforced by public authority, whether sanctioned by age and custom, or newly devised in the discretion of the legislative power, in furtherance of the general public good, which regards and preserves these principles of liberty and justice, must be held to be due process of law.3
Although due notice and a reasonable opportunity to be heard are two fundamental protections found in almost all systems of law established by civilized countries,4 there are certain proceedings in which the enjoyment of these two conditions has not been deemed to be constitutionally necessary. For instance, persons adversely affected by a law cannot challenge its validity on the ground that the legislative body that enacted it gave no notice of proposed legislation, held no hearings at which the person could have presented his arguments, and gave no consideration to particular points of view. Where a rule of conduct applies to more than a few people it is impracticable that everyone should have a direct voice in its adoption. The Constitution does not require all public acts to be done in town meeting or an assembly of the whole. General statutes within the state power are passed that affect the person or property of individuals, sometimes to the point of ruin, without giving them a chance to be heard. Their rights are protected in the only way that they can be in a complex society, by their power, immediate or remote, over those who make the rule.5
Similarly, when an administrative agency engages in a legislative function, as, for example, when it drafts regulations of general application affecting an unknown number of persons, it need not afford a hearing prior to promulgation.6 On the other hand, if a regulation, sometimes denominated an order, is of limited application, that is, it affects an identifiable class of persons, the question whether notice and hearing is required and, if so, whether it must precede such action, becomes a matter of greater urgency and must be determined by evaluating the various factors discussed below.7
One such factor is whether agency action is subject to later judicial scrutiny.8 In one of the initial decisions construing the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, the Court upheld the authority of the Secretary of the Treasury, acting pursuant to statute, to obtain money from a collector of customs alleged to be in arrears. The Treasury simply issued a distress warrant and seized the collector’s property, affording him no opportunity for a hearing, and requiring him to sue for recovery of his property. While acknowledging that history and settled practice required proceedings in which pleas, answers, and trials were requisite before property could be taken, the Court observed that the distress collection of debts due the crown had been the exception to the rule in England and was of long usage in the United States, and was thus sustainable.9
The requirements of due process, as has been noted, depend upon the nature of the interest at stake, while the form of due process required is determined by the weight of that interest balanced against the opposing interests.10 The currently prevailing standard is that formulated in Mathews v. Eldridge,11 which concerned termination of Social Security benefits. Identification of the specific dictates of due process generally requires consideration of three distinct factors: first, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and, finally, the Government’s interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirements would entail.
The termination of welfare benefits in Goldberg v. Kelly,12 which could have resulted in a devastating loss of food and shelter, had required a pre-deprivation hearing. The termination of Social Security benefits at issue in Mathews would require less protection, however, because those benefits are not based on financial need and a terminated recipient would be able to apply for welfare if need be. Moreover, the determination of ineligibility for Social Security benefits more often turns upon routine and uncomplicated evaluations of data, reducing the likelihood of error, a likelihood found significant in Goldberg. Finally, the administrative burden and other societal costs involved in giving Social Security recipients a pre-termination hearing would be high. Therefore, a post-termination hearing, with full retroactive restoration of benefits, if the claimant prevails, was found satisfactory.13
Application of the Mathews standard and other considerations brought some noteworthy changes to the process accorded debtors and installment buyers. Earlier cases, which had focused upon the interests of the holders of the property in not being unjustly deprived of the goods and funds in their possession, leaned toward requiring pre-deprivation hearings. Newer cases, however, look to the interests of creditors as well. The reality is that both seller and buyer had current, real interests in the property, and the definition of property rights is a matter of state law. Resolution of the due process question must take account not only of the interests of the buyer of the property but those of the seller as well.14
Thus, Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp.,15 which mandated pre-deprivation hearings before wages may be garnished, has apparently been limited to instances when wages, and perhaps certain other basic necessities, are in issue and the consequences of deprivation would be severe.16 Fuentes v. Shevin,17 which struck down a replevin statute that authorized the seizure of property (here household goods purchased on an installment contract) simply upon the filing of an ex parte application and the posting of bond, has been limited,18 so that an appropriately structured ex parte judicial determination before seizure is sufficient to satisfy due process.19 Thus, laws authorizing sequestration, garnishment, or other seizure of property of an alleged defaulting debtor need only require that (1) the creditor furnish adequate security to protect the debtor’s interest, (2) the creditor make a specific factual showing before a neutral officer or magistrate, not a clerk or other such functionary, of probable cause to believe that he is entitled to the relief requested, and (3) an opportunity be assured for an adversary hearing promptly after seizure to determine the merits of the controversy, with the burden of proof on the creditor.20
Similarly, applying the Mathews v. Eldridge standard in the context of government employment, the Court has held, albeit by a combination of divergent opinions, that the interest of the employee in retaining his job, the governmental interest in the expeditious removal of unsatisfactory employees, the avoidance of administrative burdens, and the risk of an erroneous termination combine to require the provision of some minimum pre-termination notice and opportunity to respond, followed by a full post-termination hearing, complete with all the procedures normally accorded and back pay if the employee is successful.21 Where the adverse action is less than termination of employment, the governmental interest is significant, and where reasonable grounds for such action have been established separately, then a prompt hearing held after the adverse action may be sufficient.22 In other cases, hearings with even minimum procedures may be dispensed with when what is to be established is so pro forma or routine that the likelihood of error is very small.23 In a case dealing with negligent state failure to observe a procedural deadline, the Court held that the claimant was entitled to a hearing with the agency to pass upon the merits of his claim prior to dismissal of his action.24
In Brock v. Roadway Express, Inc.,25 a Court plurality applied a similar analysis to governmental regulation of private employment, determining that an employer may be ordered by an agency to reinstate a whistle-blower employee without an opportunity for a full evidentiary hearing, but that the employer is entitled to be informed of the substance of the employee’s charges, and to have an opportunity for informal rebuttal. The principal difference with the Mathews v. Eldridge test was that here the Court acknowledged two conflicting private interests to weigh in the equation: that of the employer in controlling the makeup of its workforce and that of the employee in not being discharged for whistleblowing. Whether the case signals a shift away from evidentiary hearing requirements in the context of regulatory adjudication will depend on future developments.26
A delay in retrieving money paid to the government is unlikely to rise to the level of a violation of due process. In City of Los Angeles v. David,27 a citizen paid a $134.50 impoundment fee to retrieve an automobile that had been towed by the city. When he subsequently sought to challenge the imposition of this impoundment fee, he was unable to obtain a hearing until 27 days after his car had been towed. The Court held that the delay was reasonable, as the private interest affected—the temporary loss of the use of the money—could be compensated by the addition of an interest payment to any refund of the fee. Further factors considered were that a 30-day delay was unlikely to create a risk of significant factual errors, and that shortening the delay significantly would be administratively burdensome for the city.
In another context, the Supreme Court applied the Mathews test to strike down a provision in Colorado's Exoneration Act.28 That statute required individuals whose criminal convictions had been invalidated to prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence in order to recoup any fines, penalties, court costs, or restitution paid to the state as a result of the conviction.29 The Court, noting that [a]bsent conviction of crime, one is presumed innocent,30 concluded that all three considerations under Mathews weigh[ed] decisively against Colorado's scheme.31 Specifically, the Court reasoned that (1) those affected by the Colorado statute have an obvious interest in regaining their funds;32 (2) the burden of proving one's innocence by clear and convincing evidence unacceptably risked erroneous deprivation of those funds;33 and (3) the state had no countervailing interests in withholding money to which it had zero claim of right.34 As a result, the Court held that the state could not impose anything more than minimal procedures for the return of funds that occurred as a result of a conviction that was subsequently invalidated.35
In another respect, the balancing standard of Mathews has resulted in states' having wider flexibility in determining what process is required. For instance, in an alteration of previously existing law, no hearing is required if a state affords the claimant an adequate alternative remedy, such as a judicial action for damages or breach of contract.36 Thus, the Court, in passing on the infliction of corporal punishment in the public schools, held that the existence of common-law tort remedies for wrongful or excessive administration of punishment, plus the context in which the punishment was administered (i.e., the ability of the teacher to observe directly the infraction in question, the openness of the school environment, the visibility of the confrontation to other students and faculty, and the likelihood of parental reaction to unreasonableness in punishment), made reasonably assured the probability that a child would not be punished without cause or excessively.37 The Court did not, however, inquire about the availability of judicial remedies for such violations in the state in which the case arose.38
The Court has required greater protection from property deprivations resulting from operation of established state procedures than from those resulting from random and unauthorized acts of state employees,39 and presumably this distinction still holds. Thus, the Court has held that post-deprivation procedures would not satisfy due process if it is the state system itself that destroys a complainant’s property interest.40 Although the Court briefly entertained the theory that a negligent (i.e., non-willful) action by a state official was sufficient to invoke due process, and that a post-deprivation hearing regarding such loss was required,41 the Court subsequently overruled this holding, stating that the Due Process Clause is simply not implicated by a negligent act of an official causing unintended loss of or injury to life, liberty, or property.42
In rare and extraordinary situations, where summary action is necessary to prevent imminent harm to the public, and the private interest infringed is reasonably deemed to be of less importance, government can take action with no notice and no opportunity to defend, subject to a later full hearing.43 Examples are seizure of contaminated foods or drugs or other such commodities to protect the consumer,44 collection of governmental revenues,45 and the seizure of enemy property in wartime.46 Thus, citing national security interests, the Court upheld an order, issued without notice and an opportunity to be heard, excluding a short-order cook employed by a concessionaire from a Naval Gun Factory, but the basis of the five-to-four decision is unclear.47 On the one hand, the Court was ambivalent about a right-privilege distinction;48 on the other hand, it contrasted the limited interest of the cook—barred from the base, she was still free to work at a number of the concessionaire’s other premises—with the government’s interest in conducting a high-security program.49
Cross-Examination and Other Due Process Considerations
1. Murray’s Lessee v. Hoboken Land and Improvement Co., 59 U.S. (18 How.) 272, 276–77, 280 (1855). The Court took a similar approach in Fourteenth Amendment due process interpretation in Davidson v. City of New Orleans, 96 U.S. 97 (1878), and Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113 (1877).
3. 110 U.S. at 532, 535, 537. This flexible approach has been followed by the Court. E.g., Twining v. New Jersey, 211 U.S. 78 (1908); Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932); Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319 (1937); Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97 (1934).
5. Bi-Metallic Investment Co. v. State Bd. of Equalization, 239 U.S. 441, 445–46 (1915). See also Bragg v. Weaver, 251 U.S. 57, 58 (1919). Cf. Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., 455 U.S. 422, 432–33 (1982).
7. 410 U.S. at 245 (distinguishing between rule-making, at which legislative facts are in issue, and adjudication, at which adjudicative facts are at issue, requiring a hearing in latter proceedings but not in the former). See Londoner v. City of Denver, 210 U.S. 373 (1908).
8. It is not an indispensable requirement of due process that every procedure affecting the ownership or disposition of property be exclusively by judicial proceeding. Statutory proceedings affecting property rights which, by later resort to the courts, secures to adverse parties an opportunity to be heard, suitable to the occasion, do not deny due process. Anderson Nat’l Bank v. Luckett, 321 U.S. 233, 246–47 (1944).
10. The extent to which procedural due process must be afforded the recipient is influenced by the extent to which he may be ‘condemned to suffer grievous loss,’ . . . and depends upon whether the recipient’s interest in avoiding that loss outweighs the governmental interest in summary adjudication. Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 262–63 (1970), (quoting Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Comm. v. McGrath, 341 U.S. 123, 168 (1951) (Justice Frankfurter concurring)). The very nature of due process negates any concept of inflexible procedures universally applicable to every imaginable situation. Cafeteria & Restaurant Workers v. McElroy, 367 U.S. 886, 894–95 (1961).
11. 424 U.S. 319, 335 (1976).
12. 397 U.S. 254, 264 (1970).
14. Mitchell v. W.T. Grant Co., 416 U.S. 600, 604 (1974). See also id. at 623 (Justice Powell concurring), 629 (Justices Stewart, Douglas, and Marshall dissenting). Justice White, who wrote Mitchell and included the balancing language in his dissent in Fuentes v. Shevin, 407 U.S. 67, 99–100 (1972), did not repeat it in North Georgia Finishing v. Di-Chem, 419 U.S. 601 (1975), but it presumably underlies the reconciliation of Fuentes and Mitchell in the latter case and the application of Di-Chem.
15. 395 U.S. 337 (1969) .
16. North Georgia Finishing v. Di-Chem, 419 U.S. 601, 611 n.2 (1975) (Justice Powell concurring). The majority opinion draws no such express distinction, see id. at 605–06, rather emphasizing that Sniadach-Fuentes do require observance of some due process procedural guarantees. But see Mitchell v. W.T. Grant Co., 416 U.S. 600, 614 (1974) (opinion of Court by Justice White emphasizing the wages aspect of the earlier case).
17. 407 U.S. 67 (1972).
18. Fuentes was an extension of the Sniadach principle to all significant property interests and thus mandated pre-deprivation hearings. Fuentes was a decision of uncertain viability from the beginning, inasmuch as it was four-to-three; argument had been heard prior to the date Justices Powell and Rehnquist joined the Court, hence neither participated in the decision. See Di-Chem, 419 U.S. at 616–19 (Justice Blackmun dissenting); Mitchell, 416 U.S. at 635–36 (1974) (Justice Stewart dissenting).
19. Mitchell v. W.T. Grant Co., 416 U.S. 600 (1974); North Georgia Finishing v. Di-Chem, 419 U.S. 601 (1975). More recently, the Court has applied a variant of the Mathews v. Eldridge formula in holding that Connecticut’s prejudgment attachment statute, which fail[ed] to provide a preattachment hearing without at least requiring a showing of some exigent circumstance, operated to deny equal protection. Connecticut v. Doehr, 501 U.S. 1, 18 (1991). [T]he relevant inquiry requires, as in Mathews, first, consideration of the private interest that will be affected by the prejudgment measure; second, an examination of the risk of erroneous deprivation through the procedures under attack and the probable value of additional or alternative safeguards; and third, in contrast to Mathews, principal attention to the interest of the party seeking the prejudgment remedy, with, nonetheless, due regard for any ancillary interest the government may have in providing the procedure or forgoing the added burden of providing greater protections. 501 U.S. at 11.
20. Mitchell v. W.T. Grant Co., 416 U.S. at 615–18 (1974); id. at 623 (Justice Powell concurring). See also Arnett v. Kennedy, 416 U.S. 134, 188 (1974) (Justice White concurring in part and dissenting in part). Efforts to litigate challenges to seizures in actions involving two private parties may be thwarted by findings of no state action, but there often is sufficient participation by state officials in transferring possession of property to constitute state action and implicate due process. Compare Flagg Bros. v. Brooks, 436 U.S. 149 (1978) (no state action in warehouseman’s sale of goods for nonpayment of storage, as authorized by state law), with Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922 (1982) (state officials’ joint participation with private party in effecting prejudgment attachment of property); and Tulsa Professional Collection Servs. v. Pope, 485 U.S. 478 (1988) (probate court was sufficiently involved with actions activating time bar in nonclaim statute).
21. Arnett v. Kennedy, 416 U.S. 134, 170–71 (1974) (Justice Powell concurring), and 416 U.S. at 195–96 (Justice White concurring in part and dissenting in part); Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985) (discharge of state government employee). In Barry v. Barchi, 443 U.S. 55 (1979), the Court held that the state interest in assuring the integrity of horse racing carried on under its auspices justified an interim suspension without a hearing once it established the existence of certain facts, provided that a prompt judicial or administrative hearing would follow suspension at which the issues could be determined was assured. See also FDIC v. Mallen, 486 U.S. 230 (1988) (strong public interest in the integrity of the banking industry justifies suspension of indicted bank official with no pre-suspension hearing, and with 90-day delay before decision resulting from post-suspension hearing).
22. Gilbert v. Homar, 520 U.S. 924 (1997) (no hearing required prior to suspension without pay of tenured police officer arrested and charged with a felony).
23. E.g., Dixon v. Love, 431 U.S. 105 (1977) (when suspension of driver's license is automatic upon conviction of a certain number of offenses, no hearing is required because there can be no dispute about facts).
25. 481 U.S. 252 (1987). Justice Marshall’s plurality opinion was joined by Justices Blackmun, Powell, and O’Connor; Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia joined Justice White’s opinion taking a somewhat narrower view of due process requirements but supporting the plurality’s general approach. Justices Brennan and Stevens would have required confrontation and cross-examination.
26. For analysis of the case’s implications, see Rakoff, Brock v. Roadway Express, Inc., and the New Law of Regulatory Due Process, 1987 Sup. Ct. Rev. 157.
27. 538 U.S. 715 (2003).
28. See Nelson v. Colorado, No. 15-1256, Slip Op. (April 19, 2017).
29. See id. at 3–4 (describing Colorado's Exoneration Act). Initially, the Court concluded that because the case concerned the continuing deprivation of property after a [criminal] conviction was reversed or vacated and no further criminal process was implicated by the case, the appropriate lens to examine the Exoneration Act was through the Mathews balancing test that generally applies in civil contexts. Id. at 6. The Court noted, however, that even under the test used to examine criminal due process rights—the fundamental fairness approach—Colorado's Exoneration Act would still fail to provide adequate due process because the state's procedures offend a fundamental principle of justice—the presumption of innocence. Id. at 5 n.9.
30. Id. at 1.
31. Id. at 4.
32. Id. In so concluding, the Court rejected Colorado's argument that the money in question belonged to the state because the criminal convictions were in place at the time the funds were taken. Id. The Court reasoned that after a conviction has been reversed, the criminal defendant is presumed innocent and any funds provided to the state as a result of the conviction rightfully belong to the person who was formerly subject to the prosecution. Id. at 5 (Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions.).
33. Id. at 5–6. In particular, the Court noted that when a defendant seeks to recoup small amounts of money under the Exoneration Act, the costs of mounting a claim and retaining a lawyer would be prohibitive, amounting to no remedy at all for any minor assessments under the Act. Id. at 1257.
34. Id. at 6.
36. See, e.g., Lujan v. G & G Fire Sprinklers, Inc., 523 U.S. 189 (2001) (breach of contract suit against state contractor who withheld payment to subcontractor based on state agency determination of noncompliance with Labor Code sufficient for due process purposes).
38. Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 680–82 (1977). In Memphis Light, Gas & Water Div. v. Craft, 436 U.S. 1, 19–22 (1978), involving cutoff of utility service for non-payment of bills, the Court rejected the argument that common-law remedies were sufficient to obviate the pre-termination hearing requirement.
39. Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., 455 U.S. at 435–36 (1982). The Court emphasized that a post-deprivation hearing regarding harm inflicted by a state procedure would be inadequate. That is particularly true where, as here, the State’s only post-termination process comes in the form of an independent tort action. Seeking redress through a tort suit is apt to be a lengthy and speculative process, which in a situation such as this one will never make the complainant entirely whole. 455 U.S. 422, 436–37 (1982).
40. 455 U.S. at 436.
41. More expressly adopting the tort remedy theory, the Court in Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527 (1981), held that the loss of a prisoner’s mail-ordered goods through the negligence of prison officials constituted a deprivation of property, but that the state’s post-deprivation tort-claims procedure afforded adequate due process. When a state officer or employee acts negligently, the Court recognized, there is no way that the state can provide a pre-termination hearing; the real question, therefore, is what kind of post-deprivation hearing is sufficient. When the action complained of is the result of the unauthorized failure of agents to follow established procedures and there is no contention that the procedures themselves are inadequate, the Due Process Clause is satisfied by the provision of a judicial remedy which the claimant must initiate. 451 U.S. at 541, 543–44. It should be noted that Parratt was a property loss case, and thus may be distinguished from liberty cases, where a tort remedy, by itself, may not be adequate process. See Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. at 680–82.
42. Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 328 (1986) (involving negligent acts by prison officials). Hence, there is no requirement for procedural due process stemming from such negligent acts and no resulting basis for suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of rights deriving from the Constitution. Prisoners may resort to state tort law in such circumstances, but neither the Constitution nor § 1983 provides a federal remedy.
43. Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 570 n.7 (1972); Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535, 542 (1971). See Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 538–40 (1981). Of course, one may waive his due process rights, though as with other constitutional rights, the waiver must be knowing and voluntary. D.H. Overmyer Co. v. Frick Co., 405 U.S. 174 (1972). See also Fuentes v. Shevin, 407 U.S. 67, 94–96 (1972).
44. North American Cold Storage Co. v. City of Chicago, 211 U.S. 306 (1908); Ewing v. Mytinger & Casselberry, 339 U.S. 594 (1950). See also Fahey v. Mallonee, 332 U.S. 245 (1947). Cf. Mackey v. Montrym, 443 U.S. 1, 17–18 (1979).
48. 367 U.S. at 894, 895, 896 (1961).
49. 367 U.S. at 896–98. See Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 263 n.10 (1970); Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 575 (1972); Arnett v. Kennedy, 416 U.S. 134, 152 (1974) (plurality opinion), and 416 U.S. at 181–183 (Justice White concurring in part and dissenting in part).