424 U.S. 409 (1976), 74-5435, Imbler v. Pachtman

Docket NºNo. 74-5435
Citation424 U.S. 409, 96 S.Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128
Party NameImbler v. Pachtman
Case DateMarch 02, 1976
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 409

424 U.S. 409 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128




No. 74-5435

United States Supreme Court

March 2, 1976

Argued November 3, 1975




Petitioner, convicted of murder, unsuccessfully petitioned for state habeas corpus on the basis of respondent prosecuting attorney's revelation of newly discovered evidence, and charged that respondent had knowingly used false testimony and suppressed material evidence at petitioner's trial. Petitioner thereafter filed a federal habeas corpus petition based on the same allegations, and ultimately obtained his release. He then brought an action against respondent and others under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking damages for loss of liberty allegedly caused by unlawful prosecution, but the District Court held that respondent was immune from liability under § 1983, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: A state prosecuting attorney who, as here, acted within the scope of his duties in initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution and in presenting the State's case, is absolutely immune from a civil suit for damages under § 1983 for alleged deprivations of the accused's constitutional rights. Pp. 417-431.

(a) Section 1983 is to be read in harmony with general principles of tort immunities and defenses, rather than in derogation of them. Tenney v. Brandhove, 341 U.S. 367. Pp. 417-419.

(b) The same considerations of public policy that underlie the common law rule of absolute immunity of a prosecutor from a suit for malicious prosecution likewise dictate absolute immunity under § 1983. Although such immunity leaves the genuinely wronged criminal defendant without civil redress against a prosecutor whose malicious or dishonest action deprives him of liberty, the alternative of qualifying a prosecutor's immunity would disserve the broader public interest in that it would prevent the vigorous and fearless performance of the prosecutor's duty that is essential to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system and would often prejudice criminal defendants by skewing post-conviction judicial decisions that should be made with the sole purpose of insuring justice. Pp. 420-428.

500 F.2d 1301, affirmed.

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POWELL, J., deliered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER., C.J., and STEWART, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 432. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

POWELL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether a state prosecuting attorney who acted within the scope of his duties in initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution is amenable to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged deprivations of the defendant's constitutional rights. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that he is not. 500 F.2d 1301. We affirm.


The events which culminated in this suit span many years and several judicial proceedings. They began in

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January, 1961, when two men attempted to rob a Los [96 S.Ct. 986] Angeles market run by Morris Hasson. One shot and fatally wounded Hasson, and the two fled indifferent directions. Ten days later, Leonard Lingo was killed while attempting a robbery in Pomona, Cal., but his two accomplices escaped. Paul Imbler, petitioner in this case, turned himself in the next day as one of those accomplices. Subsequent investigation led the Los Angeles District Attorney to believe that Imbler and Lingo had perpetrated the first crime as well, and that Imbler had killed Hasson. Imbler was charged with first-degree felony murder for Hasson's death.

The State's case consisted of eyewitness testimony from Hasson's wife and identification testimony from three men who had seen Hasson's assailants fleeing after the shooting. Mrs. Hasson was unable to identify the gunman because a hat had obscured his face, but, from police photographs, she identified the killer's companion as Leonard Lingo. The primary identification witness was Alfred Costello, a passerby on the night of the crime, who testified that he had a clear view both as the gunman emerged from the market and again a few moments later when the fleeing gunman -- after losing his hat -- turned to fire a shot at Costello1 and to shed his coat2 before continuing on. Costello positively identified Imbler as the gunman. The second identification witness, an attendant at a parking lot through which the gunman ultimately escaped, testified that he had a side and front view as the man passed. Finally, a customer who was leaving Hasson's market as the robbers entered

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testified that he had a good look then and as they exited moments later. All of these witnesses identified Imbler as the gunman, and the custoner also identified the second man as Leonard Lingo. Rigorous cross-examination failed to shake any of these witnesses.3

Imbler's defense was an alibi. He claimed to have spent the night of the Hasson killing bar-hopping with several persons, and to have met Lingo for the first time the morning before the attempted robbery in Pomona. This testimony was corroborated by Mayes, the other accomplice in the Pomona robbery, who also claimed to have accompanied Imbler on the earlier rounds of the bars. The jury found Imbler guilty and fixed punishment at death.4 On appeal, the Supreme Court of California affirmed unanimously over numerous contentions of error. People v. Imbler, 57 Cal.2d 711, 371 P.2d 304 (1962).

Shortly thereafter, Deputy District Attorney Richard Pachtman, who had been the prosecutor at Imbler's trial and who is the respondent before this Court, wrote to the Governor of California describing evidence turned up after trial by himself and an investigator for the state correctional authority. In substance, the evidence consisted of newly discovered corroborating witnesses for Imbler's alibi, as well as new revelations about prime witness Costello's background which indicated that he was less trustworthy than he had represented originally to Pachtman and in his testimony. Pachtman noted that leads to some of this information had been available to Imbler's counsel prior to trial, but apparently

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had not been developed, that Costello had testified convincingly and withstood intense cross-examination, and that none of the new evidence was conclusive of Imbler's innocence. He explained that he wrote from a belief that "a prosecuting attorney has a duty to be fair and see that all true facts, whether helpful to the case or not, should be presented."5

[96 S.Ct. 987] Imbler filed a state habeas corpus petition shortly after Pachtman's letter. The Supreme Court of California appointed one of its retired justices as referee to hold a hearing, at which Costello was the main attraction. He recanted his trial identification of Imbler, and it also was estabilshed that, on cross-examination and redirect, he had painted a picture of his own background that was more flattering than true. Imbler's corroborating witnesses, uncovered by prosecutor Pachtman's investigations, also testified.

In his brief to the Supreme Court of California on this habeas petition, Imbler's counsel described Pachtman's post-trial detective work as "[i]n the highest tradition of law enforcement and justice," and as a premier example of "devotion to duty."6 But he also charged that the prosecution had knowingly used false testimony and suppressed material evidence at Imbler's trial.7 In a thorough opinion by then Justice Traynor, the Supreme Court of California unanimously rejected these contentions and denied the writ. In re Imbler,

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60 Cal.2d 554, 387 P.2d 6 (1963). The California court noted that the hearing record fully supported the referee's finding that Costello's recantation of his identification lacked credibility compared to the original identification itself, id. at 562, 387 P.2d at 111, and that the new corroborating witnesses who appeared on Imbler's behalf were unsure of their stories or were otherwise impeached, id. at 569-70 387 P.2d at 14.

In 1964, the year after denial of his state habeas petition, Imbler succeeded in having his death sentence overturned on grounds unrelated to this case. In re Imbler, 61 Cal.2d 556, 393 P.2d 687 (1964). Rather than resentence him, the State stipulated to life imprisonment. There the matter lay for several years, until, in late 1967 or early 1968, Imbler filed a habeas corpus petition in Federal District Court based on the same contentions previously urged upon and rejected by the Supreme Court of California.

The District Court held no hearing. Instead, it decided the petition upon the record, including Pachtman's letter to the Governor and the transcript of the referee's hearing ordered by the Supreme Court of California. Reading that record quite differently than had the seven justices of the State Supreme Court, the District Court found eight instances of state misconduct at Imbler's trial, the cumulative effect of which required issuance of the writ. Imbler v. Craven, 298 F.Supp. 795, 812 (CD Cal.1969). Six occurred during Costello's testimony, and amounted, in the court's view, to the culpable use by the prosecution of misleading or false testimony.8 The other two instances were suppressions of

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evidence favorable to Imbler by a police fingerprint expert who testified at trial and by the police who investigated Hasson's murder.9 The District Court ordered that the [96 S.Ct. 988] writ of habeas corpus issue unless California retried Imbler within 60 days, and denied a petition for rehearing.

The State appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, claiming that the District Court had failed to give appropriate deference to the factual determinations of...

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