Supreme Court rejects failure-to-train claim of wrongfully convicted man

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Tuesday ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 in Connick v. Thompson [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a district attorney cannot be held liable under § 1983 [text] for a failure to train subordinates, reversing a jury award of damages for a wrongfully convicted man. The respondent was found guilty of murder when he did not testify at trial because he had earlier been convicted of armed robbery at a trial during which prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland [opinion text], which requires that the state disclose to the defense evidence in its possession that is favorable to the accused. After the evidence was discovered and shortly before his scheduled execution, Thompson was found not guilty. Thompson sued district attorney Harry Connick, alleging that Connick failed to adequately train prosecutors about their duty to produce exculpatory evidence and that the lack of training had caused the nondisclosure in Thompson's robbery case. According to the statute, failure to train employees must amount to "deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the [untrained employees] come into contact," where a pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is "ordinarily necessary" to demonstrate deliberate indifference. In an opinion authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court determined that Connick was reasonably unaware of potentially similar Brady violations:

[W]hen city policymakers are on actual or constructive notice that a particular omission in their training program causes city employees to violate citizens' constitutional rights, the city may be deemed deliberately indifferent if the policymakers choose to retain that program. ... Without notice that a course of training is deficient in a particular respect, decisionmakers can hardly be said to have deliberately chosen a training program that will cause violations of constitutional rights.
Furthermore, "single incident" liability is not a valid exception to the required showing of a pattern of violations. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Samuel Alito. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the dissent, argued that failure to provide training in some circumstances could be so egregious such that a single violation resulting from the lack of training could be characterized as deliberate indifference to constitutional rights.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday also dismissed [opinion, PDF] a writ of certiorari in Tolentino v. New York [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] as improvidently granted. The court declined to address the issue of whether the exclusionary rule prohibits police from using a defendant's driving record compiled by the state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) obtained after illegally stopping the defendant.

 

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