Criminal Justice

Supreme Court Broadens Absolute Prosecutorial Immunity

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The Supreme Court has unanimously overruled the Ninth Circuit in the case of Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, and broadened absolute prosecutorial immunity to include district attorneys whose poor supervision of subordinates may result in wrongful convictions. I wrote about the case last April:

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Thomas Goldstein, an ex-marine who was convicted of murdering his neighbor.

Goldstein served 24 years before his conviction was thrown out when the main witness against him was shown to have lied. That witness was a lifelong criminal who was given a deal on his own charges in exchange for testimony that Goldstein confessed to him in a jail cell. Goldstein alleges that the district attorney's office that prosecuted the case routinely used the testimony of so-called "jailhouse snitches" prosecutors knew or should have known weren't reliable.

Goldstein's case is unusual because he's not suing the prosecutor who convicted him, but John Van de Camp, the district attorney who supervised that prosecutor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has allowed Goldstein's case to go forward, causing the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to hear it.

This isn't terribly surprising, but it's too bad. All the incentives for prosecutors right now point toward winning convictions. There's very little to hold them accountable when they go too far.

Currently, even if a prosecutor knowingly withholds exculpatory evidence in a case that results in a wrongful conviction, he can't be sued. 

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  1. I suppose that’s what we get for trying to check our betters.

    Oh well, back to the mud pit…

  2. I swear to God, this stuff is such a downer. No wonder people stick their heads in the sand.

    A bit off topic but John Van de Kamp is the spoiled rich offspring of the Van de Kamp Bakery people. Used to have their mass produced artery clogging psuedo-pastry in every major supermarket in the Southland.

  3. I guess this court wasn’t satisfied with the infamy of Kelo v. New London, so they had to do something even more egregious.

    -jcr

  4. “””Currently, even if a prosecutor knowingly withholds exculpatory evidence in a case that results in a wrongful conviction, he can’t be sued.””””

    Who can you sue?

    While I’m not for the degree of immunity they have, I have little problem with a city or state that can not build that new whatever because they a paying out on lawsuits. However, isn’t that the rationale that Scalia uses for ending the exclusionary rule, it punishes the people, not the one’s that deserve punishment.

  5. They oughtta put the prosecutor on trial and if he’s found guilty of wrongfully trying a case where he has evidence of the suspect being not guilty, he should get a prison term (ass-rape variety) equal to the length of the accused he wrongfully prosecuted.

    I don’t have that much of a problem with the supervisor not being sued, though. If I commit an egregious error on purpose at my job that causes a shit storm to ensue but my boss didn’t micromanage me to the point of insanity, how is he to blame? I was the one who purposely ruined everyone’s day. If a prosecutor purposely excludes the truth, it’s his ass.

  6. Hopefully, they didn’t rest their opinion on the “new professionalism” of prosecutors.

    I’m curious to see their justification of this ruling, but on the face of it, it’s pretty fucking outragous that prosecutors have absolute immunity even when they behave criminally and that you would have no recourse against a corrupt and grandstanding D.A. who didn’t care that you were innocent, just that your trial made good news coverage for his upcoming political campaign.

    Well, no legal recourse.

  7. Innocents charged with murder need to realize not only that they can’t sue their way back to life after it’s destroyed, but that they have no chance of being found not guilty. It just doesn’t happen.

    So, cost/benefit-wise, they should earn their way into prison by murdering a prosecutor — preferably their own, but it doesn’t really matter.

    A few dozen hundreds might make a dent.

  8. Is this the same court that has ruled that corporate managers are liable for activities of subordinates in that managers ‘should have known’ of the activities in question?

    Time for me to get a well paid and highly protected govt position, heck I could probably get away with murder.

  9. Currently, even if a prosecutor knowingly withholds exculpatory evidence in a case that results in a wrongful conviction, he can’t be sued.

    How is this different from the Duke Lacrosse case? Last I checked Mike Nifong was forced to declare bankruptcy, and the case against the city is still pending.

  10. There was something fishy about this case.

  11. The fact that it was unanimous is a real kick in the balls.

  12. aside from the fact that there was no conviction, that is.

  13. The Supreme Court has unanimously overruled the Ninth Circuit in the case of Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, and broadened absolute prosecutorial immunity to include district attorneys whose poor supervision of subordinates may result in wrongful convictions.

    Hey, remember back when we threw off the aristocracy and founded a country on equality under the law? What happened to that, anyway?

  14. So tell us the truth, do you support full prosecution of all involved in the show trial against the Duke soccer team?

    How about those involved in Waco where Clinton reinvented the quaint New England custom of burning people for their religious beliefs?

    How about the prosecutor who ran the Ramos & Campion showtrial?

  15. This is why some animals eat their young.

    This is also why prosecutors and judges get concealed carry permits. Not everybody who has a grudge against an officer of the court is a scumbag criminal.

  16. Save your money and hire a hit-man for such people.

  17. America was founded on the principle of equality before the Law.
    Here, we have Judges saying that this isn’t true.
    The days of we the People resorting to our last box of expressing our displeasure is rapidly approaching.

  18. Well, this should help you all feel a little better-

    http://tinyurl.com/btu6jp

    Durham-in-Wonderland article –

    “On Wednesday, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that could weaken the Durham defendants’ efforts to use a claim of qualified immunity to avoid liability.”

  19. HJ,

    Ramos & Compean deserved to be in jail the shot an unarmed man in the back and left him to die in the desert, then proceeded to cover it up and lie about it.

  20. You’d hope those charged with the maintenance of rule of law in this country would actually be in favor of it.

  21. homas Jackson | January 27, 2009, 12:53am | #

    So tell us the truth, do you support full prosecution of all involved in the show trial against the Duke soccer team?

    Actually, it was the Duke lacrosse team

    How about those involved in Waco where Clinton reinvented the quaint New England custom of burning people for their religious beliefs?

    Actually, in New England they hanged disenters and witches. None were burned.

    How about the prosecutor who ran the Ramos & Campion showtrial?

    See ktc2 | January 27, 2009, 7:33am.

    That’s O for 3. Oh well, at least your heart’s in the right place even if your recall of history and current events is off.

  22. I’m curious where all those conservatives who dump on the “sill 9th circuit” are during this thread? The 9th Circuit gets a lot of stuff right from a liberty perspective…

  23. That was supposed to be Silly 9th Circuit (or wacky if you will)

  24. Hey, remember back when we threw off the aristocracy and founded a country on equality under the law? What happened to that, anyway?

    Well, we didn’t really succeed at that in the first place. At the end of the revolution, the local gentry still had enough power to crush the Whiskey Rebellion. It’s been downhill from there.

    -jcr

  25. John,

    Damn that Gallatin!
    He chose the wrong side… should have shot Washington..

  26. MNG, we call it the 9th circus. And I cheer on the rare occasion they rule for liberty, however, the unanimous decision tells me there is something about the case that makes it impossible to affirm.

  27. John C. Randolph,

    the problem is you didn’t…. it’s something you have to do every generation and your g’g’granfathers doing it doesn’t count….

  28. “That was supposed to be Silly 9th Circuit (or wacky if you will)”

    I’ve always heard it called the Nutty Ninth.

  29. “All the incentives for prosecutors right now point toward winning convictions. There’s very little to hold them accountable when they go too far.”

    That statement by Balko, along with the tone of some of the responses here, should be taken to heart by prosecutors. Eventually those who cannot get justice within the system for prosecutorial misconduct will realize they have no incentive to play along with the system, and may take justice into their own hands to make a crime worth their time.

    Now while I’m certainly not advocating violence against prosecutors, I won’t be surprised if/when it happens more now, and I won’t shed any tears for them. By providing immunity to legal recourse, the court is unintentionally incentivizing recourse through…’other’ means. Prosecutors have always been targeted, but this can only make that situation worse.

  30. 5.7×28:

    Cape Fear?

  31. I think this is one of those instances in which the first three boxes (soap, ballot, and jury) have already been tried unsuccessfully.

  32. But SIV told me Scalia, Roberts, Alito, and Thomas are libertarians!

  33. MNG, 9th Circuit is out to lunch in looney land 50% of the time and really, really right on 50% of the time. That’s my wild assed guess from what I remember of their previous cases, anyway.

  34. “Cape Fear?”

    Yup.

  35. “9th Circuit is out to lunch in looney land 50% of the time and really, really right on 50% of the time.”

    That sounds about like every courthouse in America.

  36. Lamar, typical courthouses are 50% WRONG, but not as crazily wrong as the 9th Circus when they are.

  37. “Lamar, typical courthouses are 50% WRONG, but not as crazily wrong as the 9th Circus when they are.”

    There’s probably some merit to that. The Ninth Circuit also has the tendency to be correct in areas where most people would prefer to look the other way. The ruling on “under god” in the Pledge comes to mind. I remember thinking, they got it right, but it will never fly.

  38. And I’m curious: Is saying the Ninth is nutty purely a conservative pastime? It’s a big circuit, there’s got to be some conservative wackiness.

  39. A lot of what makes the Ninth loony stems from the craziness that is California. They’re notorious for overreaching decisions in regard to the entertainment world–rights of publicity, crazy copyright rulings, etc. They’re also generally very liberal and more willing than most federal courts to ignore the black letter law to get to favored results (something most courts are guilty of to some extent, of course).

    In the plus column, I think the court has been generally good on immigration and on drug laws and on some other civil liberties issues.

    I’ve never practiced there, so I’m working from my memory of reading their opinions in law school (and a few times since). It may have changed some since then.

  40. But SIV told me Scalia, Roberts, Alito, and Thomas are libertarians!

    I would not say that some measure of government immunity is incompatible with libertarianism.

    That said, boo SCOTUS.

  41. “So tell us the truth, do you support full prosecution of all involved in the show trial against the Duke soccer team?”

    Um..I think it was the LaCrosse team.

  42. That said, sure I think Mike Nifong ought to go to prison. He’s a lying, cheating, publicity whore who ignored all evidence of innocence in the case to add to his reputation.

  43. His attempt failed, of course, which means he should get it a little less hard than the guy who sent an innocent man to prison for 24 years.

  44. “Um..I think it was the LaCrosse team.”

    They have a team that drives around in Buicks?

  45. “”Um..I think it was the LaCrosse team.”

    They have a team that drives around in Buicks?”

    Yep.

    In Wisconsin.

  46. Is there an “R” missing in “SCOTUS” . . ?

    Oh, well, it only hastens the day that we give up on the ballot box and open the bullet box.

  47. Eventually those who cannot get justice within the system for prosecutorial misconduct will realize they have no incentive to play along with the system, and may take justice into their own hands to make a crime worth their time.
    they would need to go further.

    Our criminal justice system relies on both a physical infrastructure and a social infrastructure.

    Imagine if everyone over fourteen years old dropped dead. Or if a Change were to make electricity and explosives non-functional.

    The only way to take down the system is to destroy society, and there are plenty of ideas in speculative post-apocalyptic fiction on how societies could collapse.

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