Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Top Court Tosses False Imprisonment Suit Against Van de Kamp
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A former district attorney and his top aide have absolute immunity from liability to a man who alleges he was wrongfully imprisoned because they failed to protect against the possibility of cases being prosecuted by lawyers who were unaware of promises made by their colleagues to informants, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a unanimous opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, the high court overturned lower court rulings that would have allowed Thomas Lee Goldstein to sue former District Attorney John Van de Kamp and former Chief Deputy District Attorney Curt Livesay.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled, as had U.S. District Judge Howard Matz of the Central District of California, that the alleged civil rights violations by Van de Kamp and Livesay involved administrative functions and were thus not covered by the rule of absolute prosecutorial immunity.
Breyer, however, said that the types of decisions for which Van de Kamp and Livesay were being sued are so closely related to the process of trying cases that the same absolute immunity applies.
Goldstein spent 24 years in prison on a first degree murder conviction before a federal judge found that exculpatory evidence had been withheld from his attorneys. He sued the City of Long Beach, four current or former police officers, Los Angeles County, and two deputy district attorneys, as well as Van de Kamp and Livesay.
The high court only ruled on the claim against Van de Kamp and Livesay. Deputy district attorneys Patrick Connolly—now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge—and Ann Ingalls were dismissed from the case by Matz; claims against the city and county and the four detectives are still alive and are set to be tried in November.
Goldstein claims that police used “false and fabricated evidence,” including a jailhouse informant’s made-up claim of a confession, to convict him of the 1979 shotgun murder of John McGinest. Goldstein, a college student and former U.S. marine with a minor criminal record for drunkenness and disturbing the peace, was arrested two weeks after McGinest was shot dead on a Long Beach street. Police said an eyewitness, Loran Campbell—now deceased—had picked Goldstein out of a photo array.
He was convicted primarily on the testimony of Campbell and Edward Fink, who testified that he was in the same jail cell as Goldstein and that Goldstein confessed to killing McGinest in a fight over money.
Goldstein’s lawyers claim that Campbell—who testified for the prosecution at trial, identifying Goldstein as the shooter, but retracted that identification 20 years later—did not identify Goldstein’s photo until after detectives specifically picked out that photo and falsely told Campbell that Goldstein was “the suspect” in the case.
Goldstein was convicted and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison, and his appeal was unsuccessful. He filed a habeas corpus petition in 1998, and four years later, U.S. Magistrate Robert Block of the Central District of California concluded there was strong evidence that Fink had struck a deal with prosecutors, and that the prosecutors’ failure to tell the defense about it denied Goldstein a fair trial.
The magistrate cited a 1990 grand jury investigation that documented the widespread use of false testimony from jailhouse informants in Los Angeles County during the late 1970s and 1980s.
That probe was spawned by the revelation by prolific informant Leslie Vernon White that he was able to obtain information about cases, arrange to be placed in the same cell as those defendants, and then produce fabricated tales about confessions that were sufficiently detailed to come across as genuine.
The claim against Van de Kamp and Livesay was based on Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150, 154 (1972), which held that prosecutors’ offices have a constitutional obligation to establish “procedures and regulations . . . to insure communication of all relevant information on each case to every lawyer who deals with it.”
But Breyer concluded that “assuming...purely for argument’s sake, that Giglio imposes certain obligations as to training, supervision, or information-system management,” it does not follow that prosecutors will be liable for damages if they violate such obligations.
The justice explained:
“[W]e conclude that prosecutors involved in such supervision or training or information-system management enjoy absolute immunity from the kind of legal claims at issue here. Those claims focus upon a certain kind of administrative obligation—a kind that itself is directly connected with the conduct of a trial. Here, unlike with other claims related to administrative decisions, an individual prosecutor’s error in the plaintiff’s specific criminal trial constitutes an essential element of the plaintiff’s claim. The administrative obligations at issue here are thus unlike administrative duties concerning, for example, workplace hiring, payroll administration, the maintenance of physical facilities, and the like.”
Similarly, Breyer wrote, the failure to maintain a system by which prosecutors could access information about promises made by informants to their predecessors is protected by immunity because the decision as to what kind of information to include requires an exercise of prosecutorial responsibility that is not purely administrative.
Timothy T. Coates of Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland LLP, who argued for Van de Kamp and Livesay in the Supreme Court, said the ruling was a victory “on behalf of prosecutorial offices everywhere” that would “go a long ways toward heading off an end run around prosecutorial immunity.”
The court, he said, had struck an appropriate balance between individual redress and “the good of the system as a whole.”
Ronald Kaye of Pasadena, an attorney for Goldstein—New York lawyer E. Joshua Rosenkranz argued for the plaintiff in the high court—said the result was unfortunate because prosecutors were getting immunity despite the fact that Fink told “a bald-faced lie” about not receiving benefits from the prosecutors “and the D.A.’s office knew it.”
Fink was allowed to serve only 59 days in custody on his fourth felony conviction as a result of the testimony, Kaye said.
He added, however, that the heart of Goldstein’s case—his civil rights and tort claims against Long Beach and its detectives—was unaffected by the latest ruling and said he was “confident” his client would prevail in the end.
The case is Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, 07-854.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company