AELE LAW LIBRARY OF CASE SUMMARIES:
Civil Liability
of Law Enforcement Agencies & Personnel


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Defenses: Absolute Witness Immunity


     A courtroom marshal was not entitled to absolute immunity on excessive force claims by two bail enforcement agents removed from a court room at a judge's request. He was not performing a judicial function, and allegedly used force in excess of what the judge commanded and the Constitution allows. He was, however, entitled to qualified immunity from liability, since there was then "chaos" in the court room and undisputed evidence that at least one of the two plaintiffs was intent on disobeying the court's instructions. It was not "beyond debate" that the marshal used an unreasonable level of force. Brooks v. Clark County, #14-16424, 2016 U.S. App. Lexis 12510 (9th Cir.).
     A man who served over 26 years on a conviction for secod degree murder was released after a federal court determined that falsified evidence had been introduced at his trial. The state dismissed the charges rather than retrying the case. The man sued, claiming that two police detectives fabricated photos of the crime scene, investigative notes, and police reports. A federal appeals court upheld an order denying the defendants motion for absolute witness immunity. The notes, investigative reports, and photographs fell out of the scope of absolute immunity, and the defendants plainly acted in an investigative capacity in producing them. These materials were not inextricably linked to the defendants' court testimony. Lisker v. Monsue, #13-55374, 2015 U.S. App. Lexis 4564 (9th Cir.).
     An officer was properly denied absolute immunity on an arrestee's malicious prosecution lawsuit when the plaintiff claimed that he knowingly falsified and omitted material facts from police reports and lied to the prosecutor and grand jury. The claims against the officer were not based on his grand jury testimony, but rather on the police reports, the officer's knowledge of the falsehoods in another officer's police report, police radio transmissions, and statements to the prosecutor. Qualified immunity was also not available to the officer on the alleged falsification of evidence and a related conspiracy, since if these were true, they would constitute a violation of clearly established law. Coggins v. Buonora, #13-4635, 2015 U.S. App. Lexis 487 (2nd Cir.).
     A man who previously worked as a confidential drug informant sued a DEA agent and city police for false drug charges allegedly brought against him, claiming malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and deprivation of (and conspiracy to deprive him of) his constitutional rights on the basis of race or color. The DEA agent was entitled to absolute immunity for his allegedly false grand jury testimony against the plaintiff. The alleged cooperation between the DEA agent and the city police did not support an inference that they acted for an improper motive, and no discriminatory animus was shown. Abuse of process, malicious prosecution, and racial discrimination claims were all rejected. Morales v. City of New York, #13-2126, 2014 U.S. App. Lexis 9157 (2nd Cir.).
     In a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming that the chief investigator for a prosecutor's office conspired to present, and did, in fact, present false testimony to a grand jury, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the investigator was entitled to absolute witness immunity on all claims arising from his grand jury testimony. A witness in a grand jury proceeding is entitled to absolute immunity just as is a witness who testifies at a trial. The Court found that there is no reason to distinguish law enforcement witnesses from lay witnesses in civil rights actions. The rule that a grand jury witness has absolute immunity from any civil rights claim based on the witnessí testimony may not be circumvented by claiming that a grand jury witness conspired to present false testimony, or by using evidence of the witnessí testimony to support any other claim concerning the initiation or maintenance of a prosecution. Rehberg v. Paulk, #10-788, 2012 U.S. Lexis 2711.
     A man's conviction for the abduction and sexual assault of a woman was overturned after new evidence was revealed and a key witness recanted her testimony. On retrial, the accused was found not guilty, and released, having served twelve years in prison. The accused then sued a police detective, a forensic consultant, and his alleged victim. A federal appeals court ruled that the statements of a potential witness who had not testified at the original trial should have been disclosed to the defense because they called into question, if not entirely discredited, the crime victim's identification of the plaintiff as one of her attackers, so that summary judgment was reversed on claims arising from the alleged failure to disclose exculpatory evidence. Claims against the detective for perjury, however, were barred by absolute witness immunity, since they were based on his trial testimony, instead of his role as complaining witness. Moldowan v. City of Warren, #07-2115/2116/2117, 2009 U.S. App. Lexis 17988 (6th Cir.), amended by Moldowan v. City of Warren, 2009 U.S. App. Lexis 18562 (6th Cir.).
     Police detective was entitled to absolute witness immunity for allegedly conspiring to commit perjury at arrestee's preliminary hearing and trial Hunt v. Bennett, 17 F.3d 1263 (10th Cir. 1994).

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