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SCOTUSwiki Preview: Van de Kamp v. Goldstein

Of the many potential causes of wrongful convictions, one of the most common in recent decades has been false testimony of jailhouse informants, or “snitches.” In exchange for money or leniency in their own cases, snitches have often provided the only evidence of the guilt – usually a purported confession made from one cell mate to another – in countless cases of defendants who were later discovered to be innocent. Given snitches’ inherent incentive to lie, the Supreme Court in Giglio v. United States (1972) required prosecutors, under their obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence to criminal defendants, to reveal any promises of leniency or other benefits granted to witnesses testifying for the government. This obligation, the Court said, existed regardless of whether the trial prosecutor struck – or was even aware of – the deal, and advised that “procedures and regulations…be established…to insure communication of all relevant information on each case to every lawyer who deals with it.”

Los Angeles County was one of numerous prosecutors’ offices around the county that failed to heed the Court’s advice, however. In 1990, a grand jury concluded that the county district attorney’s office had for more than a decade systematically coached jailhouse informants to fabricate confessions from criminal defendants. In addition, the grand jury criticized the office for failing to create a central index containing the names of jailhouse informants and the cases in which they testified. In Van de Kamp v. Goldstein (07-854), the Supreme Court will consider whether a defendant convicted on the basis of false snitch testimony can sue those purportedly responsible for failing to implement such a system – or whether such a decision, while perhaps negligent, remains immune from suit under doctrines that have traditionally protected prosecutors for actions taken in their role as advocates for the government.


The respondent in the case, Thomas Lee Goldstein, was convicted by a California jury in 1980 for a murder committed in Long Beach, Calif. Central to the state’s case was the testimony of a longtime jailhouse informant named Edward Fink, who told jurors that Goldstein had confessed during the one night they shared a cell together. Asked on the stand whether he expected to receive benefits in exchange for his testimony, Fink, a heroin addict, falsely told jurors that he had been promised nothing. Concluding that Fink perjured himself during the trial, a federal magistrate judge in 2004 ordered the district attorney’s office to either retry Goldstein or release him. Lacking other evidence of Goldstein’s guilt, authorities released him.

Shortly thereafter, Goldstein, a former Marine, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 – a federal civil rights law – against numerous police officers and detectives in the Long Beach Police Department, as well as the County of Los Angeles. According to Goldstein’s complaint, the prosecutor handling Fink’s case learned two weeks prior to Goldstein’s preliminary hearing that Fink would receive a favorable plea bargain in exchange for testifying against Goldstein. The complaint says that information was never passed along to the prosecutors handling Goldstein’s case, however – or, as a result, to Goldstein’s own lawyers, who would have used the information to attack Fink’s credibility. After filing his initial suit, Goldstein amended his complaint to include John Van de Kamp, the county district attorney at the time, and Curt Livesay, his chief deputy. Goldstein alleged that the men’s failure to ensure prosecutors shared information regarding Fink and other informants who customarily received benefits in exchange for their testimony violated his constitutional right to due process.

In February 2006, Livesay and Van de Kamp sought to dismiss the complaint under the Court’s decision in Imbler v. Pachtman (1976), a unanimous ruling that held prosecutors could never face legal liability for actions taken during the course of a case that were “intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process.” Thus, while prosecutors could still face suit for conduct not taken in their official role as advocates for the state, they were immune under Section 1983 for alleged misdeeds relating to the bringing of charges or presenting the state’s case. In reaching its ruling, the Imbler Court reasoned that the same public policy concerns that long afforded immunity to legislators and judges for actions taken in their official capacities also applied to prosecutors. Even if prosecutors enjoyed only “qualified” immunity – the doctrine that shields government officers from liability for all but clear constitutional violations – they would constantly face suits from aggrieved defendants and could thus be more hesitant to bring charges in the first place.

The district court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the ruling in March 2007. The unanimous panel concluded that Goldstein’s allegations were related “only to how the District Attorney’s Office was managed, not to whether or how to prosecute a particular case or even a particular category of cases.” Because the alleged misconduct was not prosecutorial in nature, and because Livesay and Van de Kamp had not sought qualified immunity, the panel allowed the case to proceed. In its petition for certiorari, the defendants maintained the ruling below misapplied Imbler and would allow claims otherwise barred against line prosecutors to simply be restated as claims against their supervisors. The brief in opposition maintained that Goldstein sought to hold Livesay and Van de Kamp accountable only in their role as administrators, and that the universe of potential defendants – i.e. those who could conclusively prove they were wrongfully convicted due to administrative shortcomings within prosecutors’ offices – was quite small. The Court granted certiorari in April, and scheduled oral argument for Wednesday, November 5.

Petitioner’s argument

Livesay and Van de Kamp argue that since the decision in Imbler, the Court has taken a “functional approach” in determining the scope of prosecutorial immunity. Thus, in Burns v. Reed (1991), the Court granted absolute immunity to a prosecutor who, at a probable cause to obtain an arrest warrant, failed to inform that judge that incriminating statements made by the suspect were said while she was under hypnosis. Similarly, in Kalina v. Fletcher (1997), the Court granted absolute immunity to a prosecutor in connection with filing a charging document and motion for arrest warrant. By contrast, in Mitchell v. Forysth (1983), the Court denied absolute immunity to the U.S. Attorney General for his authorization of a warrantless wiretap. And in Buckley v. Fitzsimmons (1993), the Court denied absolute immunity to a prosecutor for his role in fabricating evidence against a suspect during the investigation of criminal charges and making false statements about him during a subsequent press conference. Citing Buckley, the petitioners argue that prosecutors must enjoy absolute immunity for any actions undertaken “in preparing for the initiation of judicial proceedings or for trial, and which occur in the course of his role as an advocate for the State.”

The petitioners also argue that with regard to complying with Brady and Giglio, “no meaningful basis” exists to distinguish between the actions of line prosecutors and supervising district attorneys. The brief argues that in setting policies for training prosecutors and ensuring they comply with Constitutional obligations, supervisors act in an inherently prosecutorial role. Indeed, the petitioners say, the duty to disclose exculpatory information only arises in the context of prosecution. Finally, Livesay and Van de Kamp argue that the same policy reasons underlying the grant of absolute immunity for line prosecutors apply to supervisors as well. Given that prosecutors already serve as inviting targets for litigation, the brief argues, the ruling below invites even more lawsuits against supervisors who, by virtue of their position, could be allegedly responsible for all prosecutions within an office. And even if themselves immune from civil liability, line prosecutors would inevitably be dragged into litigation against supervisors since their testimony would be necessary to establish what occurred in the particular prosecution at issue.

Respondent’s argument

Goldstein contends that the petitioner’s brief mischaracterizes his suit as revolving around policies that dictated the decisions line prosecutors made at trial. Instead, his brief maintains, the complaint repeatedly emphasizes that Goldstein seeks to hold the petitioners accountable only for their decision not to develop an information management system to keep internal track of jailhouse informants’ testimony. The resulting failure created an “information vacuum,” the brief says, which prevented line prosecutors from even making a decision as to whether to disclose the circumstances surrounding Fink’s testimony. Characterizing the decision as “administrative” in nature, Goldstein asserts it to be no different than the “information-dissemination questions” that businesses and managers in government agencies face every day. Moreover, when Congress passed Section 1983, no cases on record extended absolute immunity for actions in connection with record-keeping, whether by prosecutors or judges.

On policy grounds, Goldstein disputes the petitioners’ argument that the ruling below would invite a flood of litigation. First, Goldstein argues, claims such as his would be available only in the rarest of circumstances. Second, prosecutors would still enjoy the protection of qualified immunity. And third, claims of vexatious litigation have not materialized in matters regarding actions for which the Court has declined to extend absolute immunity, such as the fabrication of evidence or public statements about individuals defendants. Goldstein also notes that civil liability is the only practical method of holding supervisors responsible for systemic decisions affecting line prosecutors’ ability to comply with their constitutional obligations. Lone judges cannot impose remedies beyond the defendant in individual criminal cases, the brief states, and neither disciplinary authorities nor voters are likely to punish district attorneys for such failures.