Fields v. Warrie (1-23-14)
7th Circuit (Posner; Flaum concurs and Sykes dissents w/ sep. opinion). Civil Rights – absolute immunity for prosecutors.
Interesting civil rights opinion by Judge Posner last week on immunity for Cook County Illinois prosecutors in 1983 claims. The Plaintiff, Fields, was allegedly wrongfully prosecuted with evidence falsified by the prosecutor before he was arrested or indicted. He subsequently spent over 17 years in prison and was finally released and given a certificate of innocence from the Cook County court. He then filed suit against, inter alia, the prosecutors who falsified the evidence against him. The prosecutors moved for dismissal on grounds of absolute immunity and the District Court denied it. This appeal ensued.
By way of background, prosecutors, particularly those in Indiana are nearly impossible to sue in a civil rights action. They enjoy absolute immunity for their actions in the decision to prosecute defendants and in their case against the same defendants. This immunity applies to them in their individual capacity and thus bars 1983 actions against prosecutors even when they act with malice. The immunity does not apply to actions taken within an investigatory capacity prior to indictment or arrest, though, in which case qualified immunity applies. In their official capacity, they also enjoy 11th Amendment protections since Indiana Federal District Courts have long held that the Indiana Constitution deems them an arm of the state rather than a county. (On a side note, when I last looked in 2008, Illinois held the opposite to be true thereby eliminating this bar to recovery.)
With that background in mind, Judge Posner’s opinion deals with what occurs when a prosecutor falsifies evidence in the investigation stage and the same prosecutor goes on to prosecute the wrongfully accused. Essentially, Judge Posner states that such an action enjoys neither absolute nor qualified immunity since fabriaction is a clear violation of due process. Citing Whitlock v. Brueggemann, 682 F.3d 567 (7th Cir. 2012), an opinion authored by the current Chief Judge Diane Wood, Judge Posner finds that coerced testimony may enjoy immunity since such evidence may turn out to be true but such a rationale cannot apply to falsified evidence, which is inherently false. Therefore, regardless of whether a harm results from the falsification, the immunity itself is lost by virtue of the act of falsification during the investigation phase.
What does it mean? Prosecutors, particularly those in Indiana, have long been impossible to file suit against for alleged civil rights violations, even those where qualified immunity may apply. This opinion certainly provides a roadmap on what language to use and how to frame a complaint against a prosecutor to allow an attorney to a) see whether a viable claim exists and b) to move past the 12(b)(6) motion that always meets these actions.