Opinion recap: Court strengthens municipal immunity for prosecutorial violations
on Apr 5, 2011 at 10:26 pm
On March 29, 2011 in Connick v. Thompson, the Court â€“ by a vote of five to four, in an opinion by Justice Thomas â€“ reversed a fourteen-million-dollar award in favor of John Thompson, who served eighteen years in prison for murder and armed robbery before his convictions were vacated.Â The Orleans Parish District Attorneyâ€™s Office conceded that prosecutors failed to turn over, in violation of Brady v. Maryland, evidence to Thompsonâ€™s defense team that would have been exculpatory, but it maintained that it could not be held liable under Section 1983 for failing to properly train its attorneys.Â The Court agreed, holding thatÂ the district attorneyâ€™s office cannot be held liable under Section 1983 for failure to train its prosecutors based on a single violation of Brady.
To prevail on his failure-to-train claim, Thompson bore the burden of proving that (1) District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr., as the policymaker for the DAâ€™s office, was deliberately indifferent to the need to train his prosecutors on Brady; and (2) the lack of training actually caused the Brady violation in Thompsonâ€™s case.Â The Court began by emphasizing the rigorousness of the â€œdeliberate indifferenceâ€ standard, which requires proof that the municipal actor disregarded a â€œknown or obvious consequenceâ€ of his action; the contours of this deliberate indifference standard were the central issue in Thompson.Â In Canton v. Ohio, the Court held that deliberate indifference is ordinarily proven by showing a pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees that is subsequently ignored by policymakers.Â However, the Court also hypothesized in Canton that there might be a situation in which the need for training was so obvious that failure-to-train liability could be premised on a single violation â€“ for example, if a city were to arm its police and send them out into the community to capture fleeing felons without training them on citizensâ€™ constitutional rights.Â Although the Court has never recognized such a situation in practice, Thompson argued that his case fit squarely within the Canton hypothetical: the violation was such an obvious consequence of failure to train on Brady that it substituted for the ordinarily requisite pattern of violations.
The Court roundly rejected the comparison of the Canton hypothetical to Thompsonâ€™s situation, emphasizing that the Canton example is fundamentally different from an alleged deficiency in Brady training of prosecutors.Â Rather, the Court explained, the Canton example was meant to illustrate a situation in which the need for training in constitutional requirements is so obvious ex ante that failing to train employees amounts to deliberate indifference to constitutional violations.Â First, the Court reasoned, while there is no reason to assume that police academy recruits are familiar with the constitutional restraints of the use of deadly force, a district attorney is entitled to rely on prosecutorsâ€™ professional training and ethical obligations unless there is specific evidence (e.g., a pattern of violations) which alerts him to the need for training.Â Second, the Canton hypothetical assumes no knowledge whatsoever of the constitutional limits of deadly force, while in the instant case, the prosecutors were demonstrably generally familiar with the Brady rule, even if they were ultimately incorrect in their application of it.Â Third and finally, unlike police officers, attorneys are trained during and after law school to â€œfind, interpret and applyâ€ legal principles.Â Just because some Brady decisions are difficult or even unsettled does not make it â€œso obviousâ€ that violations will occur without certain training.Â Thus, absent a pattern of violations, Connick was not on notice that such violations were â€œhighly predictable.â€
Justice Ginsburg authored (and read from the bench) a dissent that was joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.Â The dissent countered that Thompsonâ€™s case actually does fall under the Canton example for single-incident failure-to-train liability.Â Much of the dissent is dedicated to discussing the record and the multiple ways in which the DAâ€™s office failed in its constitutional obligations.Â Contrary to the majorityâ€™s view, the dissent contended, there are many ways to demonstrate deliberate indifference short of an established pattern of violations, and the evidence presented at trial was more than sufficient for the jury to find deliberate indifference.Â Connick did not ensure that new prosecutors knew about their obligations under Brady, he did know of the need to train and monitor on Brady, and his â€œcavalierâ€ approach to his staffâ€™s Brady knowledge led to a â€œculture of inattentionâ€ to Brady in his office.Â These factors, according to the dissent, easily rise to the level of deliberate indifference.
Justice Scalia authored a brief concurring opinion that was devoted primarily to addressing and refuting several points made in the dissent.Â In particular, he complained about the dissentâ€™s â€œlengthy excavation of the trial record,â€ emphasizing that the question presented was a legal one.Â He also contended, however, that Thompson had failed to meet the â€œrigorousâ€ standard of causation required by Section 1983, reasoning that no amount of training would have prevented the prosecutorâ€™s willful suppression of the Brady evidence.Â Finally, Justice Scalia contended, it is possible that there was no Brady violation at all; the blood evidence in question was untested, and this type of evidence, which is â€œon the frontierâ€ of the courtâ€™s Brady jurisprudence, is not subject to obvious training standards.Â Thus, if there were a Brady violation, Justice Scalia would not have found the causation necessary to assign liability.