Thursday, January 30, 2014

Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decides question left open by the US Supreme Court in 2010: prosecutor should not be immune to civil claims for misconduct during investigation phase of a case

Back in 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case called Pottawattamie County, Iowa v. Harrington in which it was asked to decide an important issue related to possible civil liability for prosecutorial misconduct. In that case, two white prosecutors participated in fabricating, and then presenting at trial, perjurious testimony that resulted in the conviction of two black youths for the murder of a white former police chief. The black youths each served 25 years in prison. The key witness at trial then recanted his perjured testimony, and the men were released from prison. They then sued the prosecutors for having violated their civil rights.  In response to the claim, the prosecutors contended that they had absolute immunity from liability because it has been held that prosecutors have absolute immunity from civil liability for their conduct in the process of prosecuting the case.  The issue in the case, though, was whether the same immunity should apply to the prosecutors' conduct in the process of investigating or "building" a case.

Should their right to immunity (or the level of that immunity) change depending on the role prosecutors play at the time of the alleged violation of civil rights? In Pottawattamie, the prosecutors' misconduct initially took place while they were involved in investigating the crime but it continued during the trial since they presented perjured testimony.  Should the immunity that protects the conduct during trial affect the right to recover for the misconduct that took place before the trial?  If so, couldn't a prosecutor avoid liability for pre-trial misconduct by making sure he introduced the tainted evidence during trial?

These are all important questions that the Supreme Court was ready to address, but it never got to decide the issues because the case settled soon after the oral argument (for $12 million).

Three years later, in an opinion written by the very influential Judge Richard Posner, a split panel of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has held that a prosecutor is not entitled to absolute immunity when his wrongful conduct is committed during the investigation of a case which results in a wrongful conviction.  The case is called Fields v. Wharrie and the opinion is available here.

The case is remarkably similar to the one before the Supreme Court back in 2010.  Here a prosecutor fabricated evidence against a defendant during the investigative stage of the case. He then coerced witnesses to give testimony that the prosecutor (as well as the witnesses) knew to be false.  Based on the false evidence, the defendant was convicted of two murders. The defendant eventually was acquitted in a retrial and subsequently received a certificate of innocence from the court in which he had been tried.

In the opinion, Judge Posner addressed the same issues raised back in 2010.  For example, he explains that "[a] prosecutor cannot retroactively immunize himself from conduct by perfecting his wrongdoing through introducing the fabricated evidence at trial and arguing that the tort was not completed until a time at which he had acquired absolute immunity. That would create a ‘license to lawless conduct,’which the Supreme Court has said that qualified immunity is not to do."

For more information and commentary on this important case go to Seeking Justice, Res Ipsa Loquitur and the ABA Journal.

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