Saturday, April 25, 2020

Prosecutors Not Immune from Lawsuit over "Fake Subpoenas"

By Eugene Volokh - April 25, 2020 at 08:02AM

From Tuesday's Fifth Circuit decision in Singleton v. Cannizzaro:

Plaintiffs allege that for years, prosecutors at the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office (the "Office"), under the direction of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, used fake "subpoenas" to pressure crime victims and witnesses to meet with them. These documents were labeled "SUBPOENA" and were marked with the Office's official seal. They directed recipients "to appear before the District Attorney for the Parish of Orleans" and warned that "A FINE AND IMPRISONMENT MAY BE IMPOSED FOR FAILURE TO OBEY THIS NOTICE." The Office's use of the fake subpoenas violated Louisiana law, which requires prosecutors to channel proposed subpoenas through a court.

A brief summary of each relevant Plaintiff's experience with the fake subpoenas is in order. Plaintiff Renata Singleton is a domestic violence victim who refused to speak with prosecutors about a domestic incident. She alleges that an investigator from the Office then delivered two fake subpoenas to her home. The fake subpoenas demanded that she appear at the Office for questioning. Singleton did not comply. [Similar details for other professors omitted. -EV] …

Individual Defendants first claim that they are absolutely immune from Plaintiffs' claims arising from the use of the fake subpoenas. Although they may yet be able to prevail on this claim, we disagree with their argument at this stage of the case.

The Supreme Court extended absolute immunity for § 1983 claims to state prosecutors in Imbler v. Pachtman (1976). In that case, a criminal defendant whose conviction had been overturned sued the prosecutor, several police officers, and a fingerprint expert, alleging "a conspiracy among them unlawfully to charge and convict him." But the Court concluded that state prosecutors are absolutely immune from § 1983 damages claims based on activities "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process." Thus, the Court held that a state prosecutor who acts "within the scope of his duties in initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution" is absolutely immune from § 1983 claims for violating a "defendant's constitutional rights." …

[T]he Court distinguishes between (1) actions taken "in preparing for the initiation of judicial proceedings or for trial, and which occur in the course of [the prosecutor's] role as an advocate for the State," and (2) "administrative duties and those investigatory functions that do not relate to an advocate's preparation for the initiation of a prosecution or for judicial proceedings." In [an earlier precedent], the petitioner sued "prosecutors for allegedly fabricating evidence during the preliminary investigation of a crime and making false statements at a press conference announcing the return of an indictment." The Supreme Court held that the prosecutors were not absolutely immune for allegedly fabricating evidence because they lacked "probable cause to arrest [the] petitioner or initiate judicial proceedings" at the time of the alleged fabrication. Thus, the prosecutors' "mission at that time was entirely investigative in character." Importantly, however, the Court also recognized that "a determination of probable cause does not guarantee a prosecutor absolute immunity from liability for all actions taken afterwards. Even after that determination, … a prosecutor may engage in 'police investigative work' that is entitled to only qualified immunity."

The policy underlying absolute prosecutorial immunity is twofold. First, "the 'special nature' of the responsibilities of those engaged in the judicial process requires that such persons be accorded absolute immunity when they participate in that process." "The prosecutor's immunity is derived from the absolute immunity accorded judges and grand jurors, an immunity necessitated by the concern that these actors in the judicial process required by law to make important decisions regarding the initiation, conduct, and merit of controversies which often excite 'the deepest feelings' of the parties would be intimidated in the exercise of their discretion by the fear of retaliatory lawsuits brought by angry defendants. A prosecutor's fear of liability could, in a variety of ways, seriously undermine the criminal justice system's goal of accurately determining the guilt or innocence of defendants."

But "when a prosecutor acts outside his quasi-judicial role, he is not making decisions comparable to those of a judge or grand juror. Thus, subjecting him to liability for such decisions will not interfere to the same degree with the effective functioning of the criminal judicial system." …

Plaintiffs allege that Individual Defendants used fraudulent subpoenas to pressure crime victims and witnesses to meet with them outside of court…. Defendants argue that creating and issuing the fake subpoenas was protected prosecutorial conduct because it "relate[d] to the core prosecutorial function of preparing evidence and testimony for trial." But the Supreme Court has squarely rejected this broad interpretation of absolute immunity: "Almost any action by a prosecutor, including his or her direct participation in purely investigative activity, could be said to be in some way related to the ultimate decision whether to prosecute, but we have never indicated that absolute immunity is that expansive."

Based upon the pleadings before us at this time, it could be concluded that Defendants' creation and use of the fake subpoenas was not "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process," but rather fell into the category of "those investigatory functions that do not relate to an advocate's preparation for the initiation of a prosecution or for judicial proceedings." … Defendants allegedly used the subpoenas to gather information from crime victims and witnesses outside of court. "Investigation … ha[s] historically and by precedent been regarded as the work of police, not prosecutors, and [it does] not become [a] prosecutorial function[ ] merely because a prosecutor has chosen to participate." Defendants' information-gathering is more analogous to investigative police work than advocatory conduct….

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