Deprivation of Liberty


The U.S. Supreme Court has sought on a few occasions to clarify the meaning of the term “liberty,” though the term has never had a precise definition. In Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), the Court stated that liberty “denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness of free men.” This statement has been quoted by several subsequent Supreme Court cases.

Liberty interests are most clearly involved when the government’s action results in physical restraint, especially in cases involving prisoners. In the examples below, the Supreme Court determined that the government was required to provide due process because of the deprivation of liberty interests:

  • Revocation of parole (Morrissey v. Brewer [1972])
  • Revocation of probation (Gagnon v. Scarpelli [1973])
  • Revocation of “good time credits” awarded to prisoners under state law (Wolff v. McDonnell [1974])
  • Involuntary civil commitment to a mental institution (Addington v. Texas [1979])
  • Transfer of inmates to a strict (“supermax”) prison facility (Wilkinson v. Austin [2005])
  • Transfer of a prisoner to a mental hospital (Vitek v. Jones [1980])
  • Involuntary administration of antipsychotic medications (Washington v. Harper [1990])

By comparison, the Court has refused to recognize other forms of liberty interests related to prisoners, including the following examples:

  • Remaining in a minimum security prison, as opposed to a maximum security prison (Meachum v. Fano [1976])
  • A review of a prisoner’s request to commute his life sentence (Connecticut Board of Pardons v. Dumschat [1981])
  • Visitation, including visits from family members (Kentucky Department of Corrections v. Thompson [1989])
  • Rescission of discretionary parole prior to a prisoner’s release (Jago v. Van Curen [1981])

In addition to restrictions on physical freedom, liberty interests include all of the rights that are granted to the people either expressly in the Constitution, such as freedom of speech or freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. Liberty also includes rights that are implied from the Constitution by the courts, such as the fundamental right for parents to raise their children.