Friday, April 25, 2008

Suing The DA

Should prosecutors be immune from civil lawsuits?

Radley Balko April 24, 2008

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Thomas Goldstein, an ex-marine who was convicted of murdering his neighbor.
Goldstein served 24 years before his conviction was thrown out when the main witness against him was shown to have lied. That witness was a lifelong criminal who was given a deal on his own charges in exchange for testimony that Goldstein confessed to him in a jail cell. Goldstein alleges that the district attorney's office that prosecuted the case routinely used the testimony of so-called "jailhouse snitches" prosecutors knew or should have known weren't reliable.

Goldstein's case is unusual because he's not suing the prosecutor who convicted him, but John Van de Camp, the district attorney who supervised that prosecutor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has allowed Goldstein's case to go forward, causing the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to hear it.
Goldstein's lawsuit stems from federal law 42 U.S.C. 1983, which states that
"…[e]very person" who acts under color of state law to deprive another of a
constitutional rights shall be answerable to that person in a suit for damages," and provides a means for those wronged by government officials to file suit in federal court.

But there are exceptions to Section 1983 suits. In the 1976 case Imbler v.Pachtman, the U.S. Supreme Court carved out a wide exception to the law to exempt prosecutors.

The Court said common law tradition grants prosecutors have what's known as
"absolute immunity" from civil rights suits, meaning that they can't be sued,
provided they're acting in their capacity as prosecutors.
Few people enjoy such protections in their own line of work (judges have absolute immunity as well).

But this complete shield from accountability is especially problematic when we're talking about prosecutors. It's a job that's already plagued by incentive problems.
We tend to measure a prosecutor's performance based on how many people he's able to throw in jail, not necessarily by how well he metes out justice.

Rarely, for example, does a prosecutor get public recognition for the cases he doesn't take. So we have people in a position where they have the enormous power to take away someone's freedom, incentives nudging them to err on the side of prosecuting aggressively, and absolute immunity from lawsuits should they overstep their bounds.

It's a recipe for abuse.. . . .Read More
Radley Balko is a senior editor for reasononline.
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