509 U.S. 259 (1993), 91-7849, Buckley v. Fitzsimmons

Docket Nº:No. 91-7849
Citation:509 U.S. 259, 113 S.Ct. 2606, 125 L.Ed.2d 209, 61 U.S.L.W. 4713
Party Name:BUCKLEY v. FITZSIMMONS et al.
Case Date:June 24, 1993
Court:United States Supreme Court

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509 U.S. 259 (1993)

113 S.Ct. 2606, 125 L.Ed.2d 209, 61 U.S.L.W. 4713




No. 91-7849

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 1993

Argued February 22, 1993



Petitioner Buckley sought damages, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, from respondent prosecutors for fabricating evidence during the preliminary investigation of a highly publicized rape and murder in Illinois and making false statements at a press conference announcing the return of an indictment against him. He claimed that when three separate lab studies failed to make a reliable connection between a boot print at the murder site and his boots, respondents obtained a positive identification from one Robbins, who allegedly was known for her willingness to fabricate unreliable expert testimony. Thereafter, they convened a grand jury for the sole purpose of investigating the murder, and 10 months later, respondent Fitzsimmons, the State's Attorney, announced the indictment at the news conference. Buckley was arrested and, unable to meet the bond, held in jail. Robbins provided the principal evidence against him at trial, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict. When Robbins died before Buckley's retrial, all charges were dropped and he was released after three years of incarceration. In the § 1983 action, the District Court held that respondents were entitled to absolute immunity for the fabricated evidence claim but not for the press conference claim. However, the Court of Appeals ruled that they had absolute immunity on both claims, theorizing that prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity when out-of-court acts cause injury only to the extent a case proceeds in court, but are entitled only to qualified immunity if the constitutional wrong is complete before the case begins. On remand from this Court, it found that nothing in Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478—in which the Court held that prosecutors had absolute immunity for their actions in participating in a probable-cause hearing but not in giving advice to the police—undermined its initial holding.


Respondents are not entitled to absolute immunity. Pp. 267-278.

(a) Certain immunities were so well established when § 1983 was enacted that this Court presumes that Congress would have specifically so provided had it wished to abolish them. Most public officials are entitled only to qualified immunity. However, sometimes their actions fit within a common-law tradition of absolute immunity. Whether they do is determined by the nature of the function performed, not the identity of the actor who performed it, Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 229,

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and it is available for conduct of prosecutors that is "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process." Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430. Pp. 267-271.

(b) Acts undertaken by a prosecutor in preparing for the initiation of judicial proceedings or for trial, and which occur in the course of his role as an advocate for the State, are entitled to the protections of absolute immunity. However, in endeavoring to determine whether the bootprint had been made by Buckley, respondents were acting not as advocates but as investigators searching for clues and corroboration that might give them probable cause to recommend an arrest. Such activities were not immune from liability at common law. If performed by police officers and detectives, such actions would be entitled to only qualified immunity; the same immunity applies to prosecutors performing those actions. Convening a grand jury to consider the evidence their work produced does not retroactively transform that work from the administrative into the prosecutorial. Pp. 271-276.

(c) Fitzsimmons' statements to the media also are not entitled to absolute immunity. There was no common-law immunity for prosecutor's out-of-court statements to the press, and, under Imbler, such comments have no functional tie to the judicial process just because they are made by a prosecutor. Nor do policy considerations support extending absolute immunity to press statements, since this Court has no license to establish immunities from § 1983 actions in the interests of what it judges to be sound public policy, and since the presumption is that qualified, rather than absolute, immunity is sufficient to protect government officials in the exercise of their duties. Pp. 276-278.

952 F.2d 965, reversed and remanded. Stevens, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I, II, III, and IV-B, and the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts IV-A and V, in which Blackmun, O'Connor, Scalia, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 279. Kennedy, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White and Souter, JJ., joined, post, p. 282.

G. Flint Taylor argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was John L. Stainthorp.

James G. Sotos argued the cause and filed a brief for respondents.

Jeffrey P. Minear argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief

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were Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorney General Gerson, and Deputy Solicitor General Mahoney.[*]

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court.

In an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, petitioner seeks damages from respondent prosecutors for allegedly fabricating evidence during the preliminary investigation of a crime and making false statements at a press conference announcing the return of an indictment. The questions presented are whether respondents are absolutely immune from liability on either or both of these claims.

As the case comes to us, we have no occasion to consider whether some or all of respondents' conduct may be protected by qualified immunity. Moreover, we make two important assumptions about the case: first, that petitioner's allegations are entirely true; and, second, that they allege constitutional violations for which § 1983 provides a remedy. Our statement of facts is therefore derived entirely from petitioner's complaint and is limited to matters relevant to respondents' claim to absolute immunity.


Petitioner commenced this action on March 4, 1988, following his release from jail in Du Page County, Illinois. He had been incarcerated there for three years on charges growing out of the highly publicized murder of Jeanine Nicarico, an 11-year-old child, on February 25, 1983. The complaint named 17 defendants, including Du Page County, its sheriff and seven of his assistants, two expert witnesses and the estate of a third, and the five respondents.

Respondent Fitzsimmons was the duly elected Du Page County State's Attorney from the time of the Nicarico

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murder through December 1984, when he was succeeded by respondent Ryan, who had defeated him in a Republican primary election on March 21, 1984. Respondent Knight was an assistant state's attorney under Fitzsimmons and served as a special prosecutor in the Nicarico case under Ryan. Respondents Kilander (who came into office with Ryan) and King were assistant prosecutors, also assigned to the case. The theory of petitioner's case is that in order to obtain an indictment in a case that had engendered "extensive publicity" and "intense emotions in the community," the prosecutors fabricated false evidence, and that in order to gain votes, Fitzsimmons made false statements about petitioner in a press conference announcing his arrest and indictment 12 days before the primary election. Petitioner claims that respondents' misconduct created a "highly prejudicial and inflamed atmosphere" that seriously impaired the fairness of the judicial proceedings against an innocent man and caused him to suffer a serious loss of freedom, mental anguish, and humiliation.

The fabricated evidence related to a boot print on the door of the Nicarico home apparently left by the killer when he kicked in the door. After three separate studies by experts from the Du Page County Crime Lab, the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement, and the Kansas Bureau of Identification, all of whom were unable to make a reliable connection between the print and a pair of boots that petitioner had voluntarily supplied, respondents obtained a "positive identification" from one Louise Robbins, an anthropologist in North Carolina who was allegedly well known for her willingness to fabricate unreliable expert testimony. Her opinion was obtained during the early stages of the investigation, which was being conducted under the joint supervision and direction of the sheriff and respondent Fitzsimmons, whose

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police officers and assistant prosecutors were performing essentially the same investigatory functions.[1] Thereafter, having failed to obtain sufficient evidence to support petitioner's (or anyone else's) arrest, respondents convened a special grand jury for the sole purpose of investigating

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the Nicarico case. After an 8-month investigation, during which the grand jury heard the testimony of over 100 witnesses, including the bootprint experts, it was still unable to return an indictment. On January 27, 1984, respondent Fitzsimmons admitted in a public statement that there was insufficient evidence to indict anyone for the rape and murder of Jeanine Nicarico. Although no additional evidence was obtained in the interim, the indictment was returned in March, when Fitzsimmons held the defamatory press conference so shortly before the primary election. Petitioner was then arrested, and because he was unable to meet the bond (set at $3 million), he was held in jail. Petitioner's trial began 10 months later, in January 1985. The principal evidence against him was provided by Robbins, the North Carolina anthropologist. Because the...

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