Tuesday, April 21, 2009

But if I can't cheat, how can I win?

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a case posing the question of when, if ever, a prosecutor can be sued in civil court for fabricating testimony and using that false testimony in court to wrongly convict a defendant. Scotusblog has a write-up of the case. Two defendants spent 25 years in prison, despite the fact that prosecutors hid stronger evidence against another suspect and coached witnesses to lie on the stand. The two defendants, now freed, have filed a lawsuit against the County Attorney and his deputy who were responsible for the convictions.

The lower court held the lawsuit could proceed, rejecting the prosecutors' claims that they are immune from civil liability for their actions. Prosecutors have absolute immunity from actions they commit when they are functioning as advocates for the state. Absolute immunity as previously defined by the Supreme Court has its limits, though. The plaintiffs in this case have argued that absolute immunity should not extend to actions taken outside of their advocacy roles. The question for the Supremes to decide now is whether the prosecutors in this case shed their immunity.

Prosecutors wail and moan and complain that opening them up to civil liability for doing things like fabricating evidence will hamstring them from doing their jobs. "Oh no," they cry, "how ever will we feel safe and comfortable enough to do our jobs and keep the people safe from the bad guys if we're worried about being held to account for our failures after the fact?" They fear they won't be able to do their jobs if they can be sued for falsifying evidence.

Their "woe is us" cries are falling on deaf ears with me. We're supposed to worry that prosecutors won't be able to do their jobs if they can't fabricate evidence without fear of civil lawsuits? Let's be clear: fabricating evidence is not part of the job. I frankly don't want any lawyer who doesn't know that to be prosecuting criminal cases. Or possessing a law license. So, since fabricating evidence isn't properly part of the job description for prosecutors, it really shouldn't be a problem if prosecutors can be sued if they fabricate evidence.

Prosecutorial immunity is fine. I have no problem with saying that honest civil servants, who perform their jobs in good faith, should not be held civilly liable for making mistakes. But there is no good faith way to fabricate evidence. There is no good faith way to suborn perjury. These things are illegal. Prosecutors should not be immune from the consequences of illegal conduct.

When prosecutors knowingly and intentionally break the law to procure convictions, they shouldn't be allowed to hide behind some cloak of governmental immunity. I think that's a fair rule. And I don't have any sympathy for prosecutors who feel this simple rule would make it difficult for them to do their jobs. It's pretty easy, really, to figure out how to avoid losing immunity: don't make shit up and don't get your witnesses to lie.

Here's hoping the US Supreme Court sees things as simply and clearly as I do.


Heather said...

"...a case posing the question of when, if ever, a prosecutor can be sued in civil court for fabricating testimony and using that false testimony in court to wrongly convict a defendant."

It is very disturbing to me that there is even the slightest suggestion that such a thing might be appropriate behavior on the part of a prosecuting attorney.

Its called "a fair trial" for a reason. Because it is supposed to be fair.

DBB said...

Hell, civil issues aside, I hope that any prosecutor who suborns perjury or who fabricates evidence to get a conviction is then subject to conviction him or herself, with a minimum penalty (including any credits for good behavior, etc, so no getting out earlier than this...) of the same number of years in prison the defendant actually spent in prison. So if you put someone in prison 25 years that way, you are going to be in prison for 25 years, at least. And of course, the maximum penalty will be whatever the maximum was for the defendants (mind you I would even include the death penalty in this - as far as I'm concerned, fabricating evidence to send someone to the gallows is attempted murder). Oh, and I'm generally against the death penalty. But what is good for the goose...

S said...

I'm too hard core on the death penalty to go that far, but I absolutely agree that criminal charges against prosecutors who suborn perjury are entirely appropriate. So it astounds me that we have to convince a court that it's appropriate just to hold these prosecutors civilly liable. If we can't even sue them, we're not going to be close to holding them accountable in criminal court.

BellsforStacy said...

I hope they are held accountable. I just don't see how this is even a question. You falsify evidence and your immune? A person / family / community deals with the consequences of that, and the prosecutor is immune? On what planet is that right?

I don't understand how these people aren't immediately disbarred?

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