Supreme Court Upholds Prosecutorial Immunity for Official Actions

Van de Kamp v. Goldstein (pdf), a strong endorsement of prosecutorial immunity from liability for official actions.

Cite as: 555 U. S. ____ (2009)


No. 07–854. Argued November 5, 2008—Decided January 26, 2009
Respondent Goldstein was released from a California prison after hefiled a successful federal habeas petition alleging that his murder conviction depended, in critical part, on the false testimony of a jailhouse informant (Fink), who had received reduced sentences for providing prosecutors with favorable testimony in other cases; that prosecutors knew, but failed to give his attorney, this potential impeachment information; and that, among other things, that failure had led to his erroneous conviction. Once released, Goldstein filed this suit under 42 U. S. C. §1983, asserting the prosecution violatedits constitutional duty to communicate impeachment information, see Giglio v. United States, 405 U. S. 150, 154, due to the failure of petitioners, supervisory prosecutors, to properly train or supervise prosecutors or to establish an information system containing potential impeachment material about informants. Claiming absolute immunity, petitioners asked the District Court to dismiss the complaint, but thecourt declined, finding that the conduct was “administrative,” not“prosecutorial,” and hence fell outside the scope of an absolute immunity claim. The Ninth Circuit, on interlocutory appeal, affirmed.
Held: Petitioners are entitled to absolute immunity in respect to Goldstein’s supervision, training, and information-system management claims. Pp. 3–12.
(a) Prosecutors are absolutely immune from liability in §1983 suitsbrought against prosecutorial actions that are “intimately associatedwith the judicial phase of the criminal process,” Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U. S. 409, 428, 430, because of “concern that harassment by unfounded litigation” could both “cause a deflection of the prosecutor’s energies from his public duties” and lead him to “shade his decisions instead of exercising the independence of judgment required by his public trust,” id., at 423. However, absolute immunity may not applywhen a prosecutor is not acting as “an officer of the court,” but is instead engaged in, say, investigative or administrative tasks. Id., at 431, n. 33. To decide whether absolute immunity attaches to a particular prosecutorial activity, one must take account of Imbler’s “functional” considerations. The fact that one constitutional duty in Imbler was positive (the duty to supply “information relevant to thedefense”) rather than negative (the duty not to “use . . . perjured testimony”) was not critical to the finding of absolute immunity. Pp. 3–
(b) Although Goldstein challenges administrative procedures, they are procedures that are directly connected with a trial’s conduct. A prosecutor’s error in a specific criminal trial constitutes an essentialelement of the plaintiff’s claim. The obligations here are thus unlike administrative duties concerning, e.g., workplace hiring. Moreover, they necessarily require legal knowledge and the exercise of relateddiscretion, e.g., in determining what information should be includedin training, supervision, or information-system management. Given these features, absolute immunity must follow. Pp. 6–12.
(1) Had Goldstein brought a suit directly attacking supervisory prosecutors’ actions related to an individual trial, instead of one involving administration, all the prosecutors would have enjoyed absolute immunity under Imbler. Their behavior, individually or separately, would have involved “[p]reparation . . . for . . . trial,” 424 U. S.,at 431, n. 33, and would have been “intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process,” id., at 430. The only difference between Imbler and the hypothetical, i.e., that a supervisor or colleague might be liable instead of the trial prosecutor, is not critical. Pp. 7–8.
(2) Just as supervisory prosecutors are immune in a suit directly attacking their actions in an individual trial, they are immune here. The fact that the office’s general supervision and training methodsare at issue is not a critical difference for present purposes. The relevant management tasks concern how and when to make impeachment information available at trial, and, thus, are directly connectedwith a prosecutor’s basic trial advocacy duties. In terms of Imbler’s functional concerns, a suit claiming that a supervisor made a mistakedirectly related to a particular trial and one claiming that a supervisor trained and supervised inadequately seem very much alike. The type of “faulty training” claim here rests in part on a consequent error by an individual prosecutor in the midst of trial. If, as Imbler says, the threat of damages liability for such an error could lead a trial prosecutor to take account of that risk when making trialrelated decisions, so, too, could the threat of more widespread liabil ity throughout the office lead both that prosecutor and other office prosecutors to take account of such a risk. Because better training or supervision might prevent most prosecutorial errors at trial, permission to bring suit here would grant criminal defendants permission tobring claims for other trial-related training or supervisory failings. Further, such suits could “pose substantial danger of liability even tothe honest prosecutor.” Imbler, 425 U. S., at 425. And defendingprosecutorial decisions, often years later, could impose “unique and intolerable burdens upon a prosecutor responsible annually for hundreds of indictments and trials.” Id., at 425–426. Permitting this suit to go forward would also create practical anomalies. A trial prosecutor would remain immune for intentional misconduct, whileher supervisor might be liable for negligent training or supervision. And the ease with which a plaintiff could restyle a complaint charging trial failure to one charging a training or supervision failure would eviscerate Imbler. Pp. 8–11.
(3) The differences between an information management system and training or supervision do not require a different outcome, for the critical element of any information system is the information it contains. Deciding what to include and what not to include is little different from making similar decisions regarding training, for it requires knowledge of the law. Moreover, were this claim allowed, a court would have to review the office’s legal judgments, not simply about whether to have an information system but also about what kind of system is appropriate, and whether an appropriate systemwould have included Giglio-related information about one particular kind of informant. Such decisions—whether made before or duringtrial—are “intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process,” Imbler, supra, at 430, and all Imbler’s functional considerations apply. Pp. 11–12.
481 F. 3d 1170, reversed and remanded.
BREYER, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court

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