Imbler v. Pachtman, No. 74-5435

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtPOWELL
Citation96 S.Ct. 984,424 U.S. 409,47 L.Ed.2d 128
Decision Date02 March 1976
Docket NumberNo. 74-5435
PartiesPaul Kern IMBLER, Petitioner, v. Richard PACHTMAN, District Attorney

424 U.S. 409
96 S.Ct. 984
47 L.Ed.2d 128
Paul Kern IMBLER, Petitioner,

v.

Richard PACHTMAN, District Attorney.

No. 74-5435.
Argued Nov. 3, 1975.
Decided March 2, 1976.
Syllabus

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. 988-996.

(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, 71 S.Ct. 783, 95 L.Ed. 1019. 988-990.

(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. 990-994.

9 Cir., 500 F.2d 1301, affirmed.

Page 410

Roger S. Hanson, Woodlands Hills, Cal., for petitioner.

John P. Farrell, Los Angeles, Cal., for respondent.

Sol. Gen. Robert H. Bork, Washington, D. C., for United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

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 amendable 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.

I

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

Page 411

January 1961, when two men attempted to rob a Los Angeles market run by Morris Hasson. One shot and fatally wnded Hasson, and the two fled in different 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 Costello 1 and to shed his coat 2 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

Page 412

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 customer 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, 21 Cal.Rptr. 568, 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

Page 413

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 had a duty to be fair and see that all true facts whether helpful to the case or not, should be presented." 5

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 established 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,

Page 414

Cal.2d 554, 35 Cal.Rptr. 293, 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, 35 Cal.Rptr., at 297-299, 387 P.2d, at 10-11, and that the new corroborating witnesses who appeared on Imbler's behalf were unsure of their stories or were otherwise impeached, id., at 569-570, 35 Cal.Rptr., at 301, 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, 39 Cal.Rptr. 375, 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 (C.D.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

Page 415

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 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 the Supreme Court of California as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that the...

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8469 practice notes
  • Williams v. Treen, No. 80-3792
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • March 31, 1982
    ...mention an immunity defense. " § 1983 creates a species of tort liability that on its face admits of no immunities." Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 417, 96 S.Ct. 984, 988, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976). However, the Supreme Court has chosen to construe § 1983 as incorporating and allowing for a ......
  • BJRL v. State of Utah, Civ. No. C86-324G.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. United States District Court of Utah
    • January 28, 1987
    ...based upon sovereign immunity, they nevertheless are entitled to absolute immunity. The basis for that contention is Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 420, 96 S.Ct. 984, 990, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1970) wherein the Supreme Court held that the concept of prosecutorial immunity applies to actions u......
  • Suboh v. City of Revere, Mass., No. CIV.A. 00-10396-WGY.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts
    • March 30, 2001
    ...during judicial proceedings. Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 269, 113 S.Ct. 2606, 125 L.Ed.2d 209 (1993) (citing Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430, 96 S.Ct. 984 [1976]). The reasoning behind the doctrine is clear. Absolute prosecutorial immunity is intended to protect the prosecut......
  • BEG Invs., LLC v. Alberti, Civil Action No.: 13–cv–0182 RC
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • March 24, 2015
    ...conduct—including suborning perjury—done in the course of prosecuting charges against Plaintiff.” Id. at 11 (citing Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S 409, 96 S.Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976) ). In Imbler, the Supreme Court held that a government prosecutor has absolute immunity from suit under 42......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
8451 cases
  • Williams v. Treen, No. 80-3792
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • March 31, 1982
    ...mention an immunity defense. " § 1983 creates a species of tort liability that on its face admits of no immunities." Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 417, 96 S.Ct. 984, 988, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976). However, the Supreme Court has chosen to construe § 1983 as incorporating and allowing for a ......
  • BJRL v. State of Utah, Civ. No. C86-324G.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. United States District Court of Utah
    • January 28, 1987
    ...based upon sovereign immunity, they nevertheless are entitled to absolute immunity. The basis for that contention is Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 420, 96 S.Ct. 984, 990, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1970) wherein the Supreme Court held that the concept of prosecutorial immunity applies to actions u......
  • Suboh v. City of Revere, Mass., No. CIV.A. 00-10396-WGY.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts
    • March 30, 2001
    ...during judicial proceedings. Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 269, 113 S.Ct. 2606, 125 L.Ed.2d 209 (1993) (citing Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430, 96 S.Ct. 984 [1976]). The reasoning behind the doctrine is clear. Absolute prosecutorial immunity is intended to protect the prosecut......
  • BEG Invs., LLC v. Alberti, Civil Action No.: 13–cv–0182 RC
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • March 24, 2015
    ...conduct—including suborning perjury—done in the course of prosecuting charges against Plaintiff.” Id. at 11 (citing Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S 409, 96 S.Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976) ). In Imbler, the Supreme Court held that a government prosecutor has absolute immunity from suit under 42......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
8 books & journal articles
  • Qualified Immunity and Federalism
    • United States
    • Georgetown Law Journal Nbr. 109-2, December 2020
    • December 1, 2020
    ...hazards faced by other citizens may detract from the rule of law instead of contributing to it.”). 161. See, e.g., Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 425 (1976) (“[S]uits [for damages under § 1983 against state prosecutors] could be expected with some frequency, for a defendant often will tr......
  • RECALIBRATING QUALIFIED IMMUNITY: HOW TANZIN V. TANVIR, TAYLOR V. RIOJAS, AND MCCOY V. ALAMU SIGNAL THE SUPREME COURT'S DISCOMFORT WITH THE DOCTRINE OF QUALIFIED IMMUNITY.
    • United States
    • Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Vol. 112 Nbr. 1, January 2022
    • January 1, 2022
    ...right, and (2) that the right was "clearly established" at the time of the challenged conduct.'"). (133) Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 421 (134) Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 645 (1987). For this reason and others, qualified immunity has been consistently criticized by legal scho......
  • The Innocence Checklist
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review Nbr. 58-1, January 2021
    • January 1, 2021
    ...immunity for supervision, training, and information-system management decisions related to the conduct of trials); Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1976) (holding that prosecutors engaged in activities associated with the judicial process are entitled to immunity from a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ci......
  • Parens Patriae, Punishment, and Pandemics: The State's Responsibility for Incarcerated Persons During a Public Health Emergency.
    • United States
    • Journal of Law and Health Vol. 35 Nbr. 2, March 2022
    • March 22, 2022
    ...202 (2001). (344) Id. (345) Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638 (1987). (346) 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983. (347) Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 417 (1976). (348) Jen Christensen, States Engaged in 'Gross Negligence' in COVID-19 Response in Jails and Prisons, New Report Finds, CNN (June......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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