Supreme Court rules government grand jury witnesses have absolute immunity

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled unanimously [opinion, PDF] Monday in Rehberg v. Paulk [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that government officials have the same immunity for grand jury testimony under a 42 USC § 1983 [text] action as they do for trial testimony. Petitioner Rehberg was indicted three separate times for aggravated assault, battery and making harassing phone calls, largely based upon the testimony of respondent Paulk, the chief investigator of the Albany, Georgia, district attorney's office. Rehberg was being investigated by the district attorney's office after he sent out several anonymous faxes to several individuals, including to officials of the Albany hospital, criticizing the management and activities of the hospital. The investigation was allegedly being conducted as a favor to hospital management. All three indictments were eventually dismissed for lack of sufficiency. Rehberg argued that there was no evidence whatsoever that he assaulted the individual in question or had ever even been near him. After the dismissal of the charges, Rehberg brought an action under § 1983, alleging that Paulk has conspired to present and did present false evidence to the grand jury. Paulk argued that he was entitled to absolute immunity for his grand jury testimony. The US District Court for the Middle District of Georgia denied Paulk's motion to dismiss the action, but the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed and found that Paulk was entitled to absolute immunity. In an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court held that it could find "no sound reason" to treat grand jury and trial testimony differently under § 1983. The court stated that immunity for trial witnesses was critical because witnesses would not testify for fear of retaliatory litigation and there were already other adequate checks and balances in place to prevent false testimony. The same rationales applied to grand jury testimony:

Without absolute immunity, the truth-seeking process would be impaired as witnesses might be reluctant to testify, and even a witness who took the stand "might be inclined to shade his testimony in favor of the potential plaintiff" for "fear of subsequent liability." ... These factors apply with equal force to grand jury witnesses. In both contexts, a witness' fear of retaliatory litigation may deprive the tribunal of critical evidence. And in neither context is the deterrent of potential civil liability needed to prevent false testimony because other sanctions, chiefly prosecution for perjury, provide a sufficient deterrent.
Rehberg argued that under Supreme Court precedent a "complaining witness" was not entitled to absolute immunity. However, when the provision upon which the current § 1983 is based was enacted, a "complaining witness was a party who procured an arrest and initiated a criminal prosecution." The court stated that a police officer would not be a "complaining witness" because the prosecutor is the one who chooses to go forward with the charges, but it would be anomalous to permit the prosecutor to be shielded by absolute immunity while the officer would be subject to civil liability.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari [JURIST report] in March 2011. Petitioner Rehberg asked the court to clarify the application of two conflicting Supreme Court precedents in Briscoe v. Lahue and Malley v. Briggs. In Briscoe, the court held that a police officer who allegedly committed perjury was immune from civil liability. However, in Malley, the court allowed a suit against a police officer for wrongfully causing an arrest warrant to be issued, reasoning that the officer was acting as a "complaining witness." The circuit courts were split over which precedent to apply when a government official provides testimony as a complaining witness.

 

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