Briscoe v. Hue

Decision Date07 March 1983
Docket NumberNo. 81-1404,81-1404
Citation75 L.Ed.2d 96,103 S.Ct. 1108,460 U.S. 325
PartiesCarlisle W. BRISCOE, Chris P. Vickers, Sr., and James N. Ballard, Petitioners v. Martin LaHUE and James W. Hunley, etc
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Held: Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1976 ed., Supp. IV) does not authorize a convicted state defendant to assert a claim for damages against a police officer for giving perjured testimony at the defendant's criminal trial. Pp. 329-346.

(a) The common law provided absolute immunity from subsequent damages liability for all persons—governmental or otherwise—who were integral parts of the judicial process. Section 1983 does not authorize a damages claim against private witnesses. Similarly, judges, Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18 L.Ed.2d 288, and prosecutors, Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 96 S.Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128, may not be held liable for damages under § 1983 for the performance of their respective duties in judicial proceedings. When a police officer appears as a witness, he may reasonably be viewed as acting like any witness sworn to tell the truth, in which event he can make a strong claim to witness immunity. Alternatively, he may be regarded as an official performing a critical role in the judicial process, in which event he may seek the benefit afforded to other governmental participants in the same proceeding. Nothing in § 1983's language suggests that a police officer witness belongs in a narrow, special category lacking protection against damages suits. Pp. 329-336.

(b) Nor does anything in the legislative history of the statute indicate that Congress intended to abrogate common-law witness immunity in order to provide a damages remedy under § 1983 against police officers or any other witnesses. Pp. 336-341.

(c) There is some force to the contentions that the reasons supporting common-law witness immunity—the need to avoid intimidation and self-censorship—apply with diminished force to police officers and that police officers' perjured testimony is likely to be more damaging to constitutional rights than such testimony by ordinary citizens. But immunity analysis rests on functional categories, not on the defendant's status. A police officer witness performs the same functions as any other witness. Moreover, to the extent that traditional reasons for witness immunity are less applicable to governmental witnesses, other considerations of public policy support absolute immunity for such witnesses more emphatically than for ordinary witnesses. Subjecting government officials, such as police officers, to damages liability under § 1983 for their testimony might undermine not only their contribution to the judicial process but also the effective performance of their other public duties. Pp. 341-346.

663 F.2d 713 (CA7 1981) affirmed.

Edmund B. Moran, Jr., Chicago, Ill., for petitioners.

Harriet Lipkin, Bloomington, Ind., for respondents.

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents a question of statutory construction: whether 42 U.S.C. § 1983 authorizes a convicted person to assert a claim for damages against a police officer for giving perjured testimony at his criminal trial. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that witnesses are absolutely immune from damages liability based on their testimony, and rejected the petitioners' contention that government officials who testify about the performance of their official duties may be held liable under § 1983 even if other witnesses may not. We agree with that conclusion.

The Court of Appeals heard argument in three separate cases raising the absolute immunity issue and decided them in a single opinion. Two of these cases are before us on writs of certiorari. Petitioner Briscoe was convicted in state court of burglarizing a house trailer. He then filed a § 1983 complaint against respondent LaHue, a member of the Bloomington, Indiana police force, alleging that LaHue had violated his constitutional right to due process by committing perjury in the criminal proceedings leading to his conviction.1 LaHue had testified that in his opinion Briscoe was one of no more than 50 to 100 people in Bloomington whose prints would match a partial thumbprint on a piece of glass found at the scene of the crime. According to Briscoe, the testimony was false because the FBI and the state police considered the partial print too incomplete to be of value, and without the print there was no evidence identifying him as the burglar. He sought $100,000 in damages. The District Court granted LaHue's motion for summary judgment on four separate grounds: 1) the facts alleged in the complaint did not suggest that LaHue had testified falsely; 2) allegations of perjury alone are insufficient to state a constitutional claim; 3) LaHue had not testified "under color of law"; and 4) Briscoe's claim was collaterally estopped by his criminal conviction.

Petitioners Vickers and Ballard were jointly tried and convicted of sexual assault in state court. They subsequently brought a civil action under § 1983 against respondent Hunley, a member of the Cedar Lake, Indiana, police force, alleging that he had deprived them of their constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial. They alleged that, by giving false testimony suggesting that they had been able to harmonize their stories before making exculpatory statements to police, he had prejudicially diminished the credibility of those statements. Each plaintiff sought $150,000 in compensatory and $50,000 in punitive damages. The federal magistrate granted a motion to dismiss the complaint on alternative grounds: 1) Hunley had not testified "under color of law"; 2) he was entitled to absolute witness immunity; and 3) petitioners had failed to state a claim under § 1983 because they did not allege that the prosecutor had knowingly used false testimony. The District Court affirmed the dismissal on the first ground. Both cases were appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.2 Although other issues were argued in the Court of Appeals, its holding in both cases was predicated squarely on the ground that, in litigation brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, all witnesses police officers as well as lay witnesses—are absolutely immune from civil liability based on their testimony in judicial proceedings. 663 F.2d 713 (CA7 1981).3 Because of the importance of the immunity question, which has given rise to divergent conclusions in the Courts of Appeals,4 we granted certiorari. 455 U.S. 1016, 102 S.Ct. 1708, 72 L.Ed.2d 132 (1982).5 Before confronting the precise question that these cases present—whether § 1983 creates a damages remedy against police officers for their testimony as witnesses—we begin by considering the potential liability of lay witnesses on the one hand, and of judges and prosecutors who perform integral functions in judicial proceedings on the other hand. The unavailability of a damages remedy against both of these categories sheds considerable light on petitioners' claim that Congress intended police officer witnesses to be treated differently.


There are two reasons why § 1983 does not allow recovery of damages against a private party for testimony in a judicial proceeding. First, § 1983 does not create a remedy for all conduct that may result in violation of "rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws." Its reach is limited to actions taken "under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory . . . ." 6 It is beyond question that, when a private party gives testimony in open court in a criminal trial, that act is not performed "under color of law." 7

Second, since 1951, when this Court decided Tenney v. Brandhove, 341 U.S. 367, 71 S.Ct. 783, 95 L.Ed. 1019, it has been settled that the all-encompassing language of § 1983, referring to "[e]very person" who, under color of law, deprives another of federal constitutional or statutory rights, is not to be taken literally.8

"It is by now well settled that the tort liability created by § 1983 cannot be understood in a historical vacuum. . . . One important assumption underlying the Court's decisions in this area is that members of the 42d Congress were familiar with common-law principles, including defenses previously recognized in ordinary tort litigation, and that they likely intended these common-law principles to obtain, absent specific provisions to the contrary." City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247, 258, 101 S.Ct. 2748, 2755, 69 L.Ed.2d 616 (1981). See Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 1217, 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967).

The immunity of parties and witnesses from subsequent damages liability for their testimony in judicial proceedings 9 was well established in English common law. Cutler v. Dixon, 76 Eng.Rep. 886 (K.B.1585); Anfield v. Feverhill, 80 Eng.Rep. 1113 (K.B.1614); Henderson v. Broomhead, 157 Eng.Rep. 964, 968 (Ex.1859); 10 see Dawkins v. Lord Rokeby, 176 Eng.Rep. 800, 812 (C.P.1866). Some American decisions required a showing that the witness's allegedly defamatory statements were relevant to the judicial proceeding, but once this threshold showing had been made, the witness had an absolute privilege.11 The plaintiff could not recover even if the witness knew the statements were false and made them with malice.12

In the words of one 19th century court, in damages suits against witnesses, "the claims of the individual must yield to the dictates of public policy, which requires that the paths which lead to the ascertainment of truth should be left as free and unobstructed as possible." Calkins v. Sumner, 13 Wis. 193, 197 (1860). A witness's apprehension of subsequent damages liability might induce two forms of self-censorship. First, witnesses might be reluctant to come forward to testify. See Henderson v. Broomhead, supra, 157 Eng.Rep., at 968. And once a witness...

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