The 409 Principle


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Coakley, F. We granted certiorari to consider the important and recurring issue of prosecutorial liability under the Civil Rights Act of Title 42 U. This Court first considered the implications of the statute's literal sweep in Tenney v. There, it was claimed that members of a state legislative committee had called the plaintiff to appear before them not for a proper legislative purpose, but to intimidate him into silence on certain matters of public concern, and thereby had deprived him of his constitutional rights.

Because legislators in both England and this country had enjoyed absolute immunity for their official actions, Tenney squarely presented the issue of whether the Reconstruction Congress had intended to. Regardless of any unworthy purpose animating their actions, legislators were held to enjoy under this statute their usual immunity when acting "in a field where legislators traditionally have power to act.

Before today, the Court has had occasion to consider the liability of several types of government officials in addition to legislators. The common law absolute immunity of judges for "acts committed within their judicial jurisdiction," See Bradley v.


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Fisher, 13 Wall. Ray, U. We found qualified immunities appropriate in two recent cases. Rhodes, U. Strickland, U. O'Connor v. Donaldson, U. The Courts of Appeals, however, have confronted the issue many times and under varying circumstances. Ray, supra. He argues that the prosecutor, as a member of the executive branch, cannot claim the immunity reserved for the judiciary, but only a qualified immunity.

Petitioner takes an overly simplistic approach to the issue of prosecutorial liability. Rather, each was predicated upon a considered inquiry into the immunity historically accorded the relevant official at common law and the interests behind it. The function of a prosecutor that most often invites a common law tort action is his decision to initiate a prosecution, as this may lead to a suit for malicious prosecution if the State's case misfires.

The first American case to address the question of a prosecutor's amenability to such an action was Griffith v. Slinkard, Ind. Despite allegations of malice, the Supreme Court of Indiana dismissed the action on the ground that the prosecutor was absolutely immune. The Griffith view on prosecutorial immunity became the clear majority rule on the issue. In Yaselli v. Goff, 12 F. The District Court dismissed the complaint, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. After reviewing the development of the doctrine of prosecutorial immunity, id.

The immunity is absolute, and is grounded on principles of public policy. After briefing and oral argument, this Court affirmed the Court of Appeals in a per curiam opinion. Yaselli v.

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Goff, U. The common law immunity of a prosecutor is based upon the same considerations that underlie the common. One court expressed both considerations as follows:. Yet how can this be if the prosecutor is made subject to suit by those whom he accuses and fails to convict? To allow this would open the way for unlimited harassment and embarrassment of the most conscientious officials by those who would profit thereby. There would be involved in every case the possible consequences of a failure to obtain a conviction.

There would always be a question of possible civil action in case the prosecutor saw fit to move dismissal of the case. The apprellension of such consequences would tend toward great uneasiness and toward weakening the fearless and impartial policy which should characterize the administration of this office. The work of the prosecutor would thus be impeded, and we would have moved away from the desired objective of stricter and fairer law enforcement. Pearson v.

Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1976)

Reed, 6 Cal. The common law rule of immunity is thus well settled. We think they do. A prosecutor is duty bound to exercise his best judgment both in deciding which suits to bring and in conducting them in court. The public trust of the prosecutor's office would suffer if he were constrained in making every decision by the consequences in terms of his own potential liability in a. Such suits could be expected with some frequency, for a defendant often will transform his resentment at being prosecuted into the ascription of improper and malicious actions to the State's advocate.

Bradley v.

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Further, if the prosecutor could be made to answer in court each time such a person charged him with wrongdoing, his energy and attention would be diverted from the pressing duty of enforcing the criminal law. Moreover, suits that survived the pleadings would pose substantial danger of liability even to the honest prosecutor. The prosecutor's possible knowledge of a witness' falsehoods, the materiality of evidence not revealed to the defense, the propriety of a closing argument, and -- ultimately in every case -- the likelihood that prosecutorial misconduct so infected a trial as to deny due process, are typical of issues with which judges struggle in actions for post-trial relief, sometimes to differing conclusions.

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It is fair to say, we think, that the honest prosecutor would face greater difficulty in meeting the standards of qualified immunity than other executive or administrative officials. Frequently acting under serious constraints of time and even information, a prosecutor inevitably makes many decisions that could engender colorable claims of constitutional deprivation. Defending these decisions, often years after they were made, could impose unique. Fisher, supra at 80 U.

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The affording of only a qualified immunity to the prosecutor also could have an adverse effect upon the functioning of the criminal justice system. Attaining the system's goal of accurately determining guilt or innocence requires that both the prosecution and the defense have wide discretion in the conduct of the trial and the presentation of evidence. If prosecutors were hampered in exercising their judgment as to the use of such witnesses by concern about resulting personal liability, the triers of fact in criminal cases often would be denied relevant evidence.

Various post-trial procedures are available to determine whether an accused has received a fair trial.

These procedures include the remedial powers of the trial judge, appellate review, and state and federal post-conviction collateral remedies. In all of these, the attention of the reviewing judge or tribunal is focused primarily on whether there was a fair trial under law. This focus should not be blurred by even the subconscious knowledge that a post-trial decision in favor of the accused might result in the prosecutor's being called upon to respond in damages for his error or mistaken judgment.

To be sure, this immunity does leave the genuinely wronged defendant without civil redress against a prosecutor whose malicious or dishonest action deprives him of liberty. But the alternative of qualifying a prosecutor's immunity would disserve the broader public interest.

It would prevent the vigorous and fearless performance of the prosecutor's duty that is essential to the proper functioning. With the issue thus framed, we find ourselves in agreement with Judge Learned Hand, who wrote of the prosecutor's immunity from actions for malicious prosecution:.

In this instance, it has been thought in the end better 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. Gregoire v. Biddle, F. See Yaselli v.


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  8. Wood v. This Court has never suggested that the policy considerations which compel civil immunity for certain governmental officials also place them beyond the reach of the criminal law. Even judges, cloaked with absolute civil immunity for centuries, could be punished criminally for willful deprivations of constitutional rights on the strength of 18 U. O'Shea v. Littleton, U. Gravel v. United States, U. The prosecutor would fare no better for his willful acts.

    It remains to delineate the boundaries of our holding. As noted supra at U. The purpose of the Court of Appeals' focus upon the functional nature of the activities, rather than respondent's status, was to distinguish and leave standing those cases, in its Circuit and in some others, which hold that a prosecutor engaged in certain investigative activities enjoys, not the absolute immunity associated with the judicial process, but only a good faith defense comparable to the policeman's. We agree with the Court of Appeals that respondent's activities were intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process, and thus were functions to which the reasons for absolute immunity apply with full force.

    This shot formed the basis of a second count against Imbler for assault, which was tried with the murder count. This coat, identified by Mrs. Hasson as that worn by her husband's assailant, yielded a gun determined by ballistics evidence to be the murder weapon.

    A fourth man who saw Hasson's killer leaving the scene identified Imbler in a pretrial lineup, but police were unable to find him at the time of trial.

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