Prosecutorial Immunity and Heck v. Humphrey

Prosecutorial immunity is a common-law doctrine that shields prosecutors from civil-rights lawsuits. Although Section 1983 was enacted as remedial legislation – and thus should be construed broadly – courts determined that public policy considerations trumped specific Congressional mandate. In Van De Kamp v. Goldstein, 129 S. Ct. 855 (2009) a unanimous Supreme Court quoted, approvingly, language from Chief Judge Learned Hand:

A half-century ago Chief Judge Learned Hand explained that a prosecutor’s absolute immunity reflects ‘a balance’ of ‘evils.’ Gregoire v. Biddle, 177 F. 2d 579, 581 (CA2 1949). ‘[I]t has been thought in the end better,’ he said, ‘to leave unredressed the wrongs done by dishonest officers than to subject those who try to do their duty to the constant dread of retaliation.’
The belief seems to be that every litigant would sue prosecutors absent prosecutorial immunity. One who lacks a complete understanding of the law of Section 1983 might find that view persuasive. However, prosecutors would rarely face civil rights lawsuits – even if prosecutorial immunity were abolished.

In Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), the United States Supreme Court applied the favorable-termination rule (which applied to malicious prosecution claims) to most civil-rights actions that could be brought against prosecutors.  In Heck, the Court held:
[I]n order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment ... a §1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254.
Heck v. Humphrey’s favorable-termination rule allows lawsuits against prosecutors only when a defendant has won. Prosecutors win the overwhelming majority of cases brought to trial.  A prosecutor who loses more than 20% of her cases will not remain a trial lawyer in most offices.

Rarely are criminal cases reversed on appeal.  In Winning on Appeal, Ruggero Aldisert compiled data, which showed that criminal convictions are reversed on appeal (or remanded for a new trial) in only 5.6% of all federal cases.  Id.  ("From this, we conclude that the reversal rates from 1998 to 2002 for all appeals averaged 9.54 percent. Expressed otherwise, here are your odds of reversing the district court: Criminal cases: 1 in 18 [].")

In light of Heck v. Humphrey, is the supposed need for prosecutorial immunity persuasive? Moreover, even if prosecutorial immunity were abolished or limited, prosecutors would be immune from suit in nearly every case.  Like all other governmental actors, prosecutors are entitled to qualified immunity.

One might wonder if judges - who were all once lawyers themselves - have allowed empathy to cloud clear judicial decision making.

1 comments:

  TaiFood

5:36 PM

Well versed.

The Judiciary has long stepped over the line to align with their workmates. Court rooms and sheriff / police departments should not be allowed to share the same hallways.

Who convicts their own friends?

How far do the courts leap away from their duty to protect the individual against the abuse of power of the prosecution? They refuse to acknowledge the harm of abuses of power. In fact they pad their existence by holding judges to be of another from of higher being to preclude criminal prosecution for their abuses.

More and more the courts align with law enforcement, ensuring corrupt verdicts. The violations of defendants are overlooked as "technigcalities" when in fact it was such 'technicalities" that led our founding fathers to insist on their own government. We don't recognize it anymore. BY neglecting their duty to remain an independent branch of government, they invite what you put diplomatically as empathy. Empathy is exactly the same as errors of bias or of corrupt designs.

As an example, read how often an officer is allowed to murder a citizen then apply the standard to the citizen who acts in self defense. The gap is so far apart that death is the only common element. Somehow officers are even supposed to be mired in the ever changing laws needing bright line rules, but every person is supposed to know their rights. That is now a fundamental concept. Ignorance of the law is no excuse unless you are in law enforcement. It is then called good faith exemption.

I get so tired of the tortured excuses allowed police to execute people, defendants some, bystanders many times, fellow officers even then charging the defendant with murder due to the continued act after the commission of the original crime.

Police can shoot with impunity defendants because it is vaguely within their job to shoot at danger on a hair trigger instinct. Before the gun of the officer is ever called a deadly weapon the car of the defendant is routinely outed as the possibility of death by shoving or broken leg. Many police act valiantly as they put themselves in harm's way. But so does the every day citizen when confronting the oppression of police.

Which of the two should be commended? Both, of course but the citizen isn't getting a paycheck most of the time when they lodge a complaint that should be a criminal prosecution, IF the citizen is allowed the equal protection under the law. Citizens are somehow held to a much higher standard than the well trained peace officer.

I ask then, how is that reasonable?