08 June 2021

Prosecutors Don't Always Have Absolute Immunity From Civil Liability

Usually, prosecutors have absolute immunity from prosecution. But this rule doesn't imply to a prosecutor's involvement in the investigative phase of a case, during which prosecutors have only qualified immunity. 

Conrad Truman sued state prosecutor Craig Johnson and various Orem City police officers for violating his civil rights by fabricating evidence that was used against him in a murder prosecution. Mr. Truman was prosecuted twice for the murder of his wife. According to Mr. Truman’s complaint, the prosecution knowingly falsified measurements of the murder scene to rule out the possibility of suicide or a self-inflicted accidental wound. As a result, the state medical examiner deemed Mrs. Truman’s death a homicide and Mr. Truman was indicted and successfully prosecuted for murder. After his conviction, he learned of the 2 mismeasurements and the state court granted him a new trial. In the second trial where proper room measurements were admitted into evidence, Mr. Truman was acquitted.

These events led Mr. Truman to file a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the prosecutor and the police. The district court found that the prosecutor was entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law and the claims against the police officers were barred by previous holdings in state court.

Exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we disagree with the district court that the prosecutor is entitled to qualified immunity at this stage in the proceedings. At the motion to dismiss stage, the allegations in the amended complaint plausibly allege the elements of a fabrication of evidence claim. As a result, dismissal based on qualified immunity was inappropriate. But summary judgment was appropriate as to the police officers because Mr. Truman forfeited his argument regarding issue preclusion in state court and did not argue for plain error review on appeal.

We therefore REVERSE the dismissal of the fabrication of evidence claim against the prosecutor and AFFIRM the entry of summary judgment in favor of the police officers.

The full 10th Circuit opinion is here

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