Knapper v. Connick

Decision Date15 October 1996
Citation681 So.2d 944
Parties96-0434 La
CourtLouisiana Supreme Court

Bruce Steven Kingsdorf, Cleveland, Barrios, Kingsdorf & Casteix, New Orleans, for applicant.

Bruce Gerard Whittaker, Michael Riehlmann, Laurie A. White, William F. Wessel, Charlotte Ann Lagarde, Wessel, Bartels & Ciaccio, New Orleans, for respondent.

Ellis Paul Adams, Jr., for Louisiana District Attorneys Association (Amicus Curiae).

Patricia Nailey Bowers, for Walter Reed, District Attorney (Amicus Curiae).

[96-0434 La. 1] MARCUS, Justice. *

In 1979, Issac Knapper was indicted by an Orleans Parish grand jury for first degree murder. After a jury trial, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal. 1 Subsequently, Mr. Knapper obtained the initial police report for the murder at issue and filed a petition for post-conviction relief, claiming that the report contained exculpatory information which should have been disclosed under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963). After an evidentiary hearing ordered by this court, 2 the trial judge denied relief. Upon application to this court, we granted Mr. Knapper's petition for post-conviction relief in a divided opinion. 3 Three of the justices dissented, being of the opinion that the information in the report was not sufficient to change the outcome of the proceedings or to create a reasonable doubt that did not otherwise exist, even if the information had been made available to the defense prior to trial. The District Attorney chose not to retry Mr. Knapper and entered a nolle prosequi of the charge. 4

After his release from prison in 1991, Mr. Knapper filed a [96-0434 La. 2] suit for malicious prosecution against David Paddison, the Orleans Parish Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted his case, alleging that Paddison acted with malice or reckless disregard of his rights in proceeding with the prosecution and not turning over exculpatory information to defense counsel. 5 Mr. Paddison moved for summary judgment, asserting the affirmative defense of absolute prosecutorial immunity from suit for conduct within the course and scope of his responsibilities. Alternatively, he argued that he was entitled to summary judgment because Mr. Knapper could not prove all of the essential elements of a claim for malicious prosecution as articulated by this court in Miller v. East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Department, 511 So.2d 446 (La.1987).

The trial judge granted Paddison's motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeal, Fourth Circuit, reversed the trial court, holding that a prosecutor is not entitled to absolute immunity from suit for malicious prosecution and that there were unresolved issues of material fact precluding the grant of summary judgment. 6 Upon the application of David Paddison, we granted certiorari to review the correctness of that decision. 7

The issue presented for our review is whether a prosecutor, acting within the course and scope of his responsibilities in a criminal proceeding, is entitled to absolute immunity from a subsequent civil suit for damages for alleged malicious prosecution of the original criminal matter.

We have not yet addressed the question of whether and under what circumstances a prosecuting attorney should be afforded absolute immunity from claims of prosecutorial misconduct in the course of a criminal proceeding. We have, however, addressed the issue of absolute immunity in other contexts. We have long held on [96-0434 La. 3] grounds of necessity and public policy that judges acting within the scope of their subject matter jurisdictions cannot be held liable for acts done in their judicial capacities. Killeen v. Boland, Gschwind Co., 157 La. 566, 102 So. 672 (1924). The immunity is extended because of the function it protects rather than the title of the person who claims it. Absolute immunity attaches to all acts within a judge's jurisdiction, even if those acts can be shown to have been performed with malice, in order to insure that all judges will be free to fulfill their responsibilities without the threat of civil prosecution by disgruntled litigants. We have also held that communications made in judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings carry an absolute privilege so that witnesses, bound by their oaths to tell the truth, may speak freely without fear of civil suits for damages. Bienvenu v. Angelle, 254 La. 182, 223 So.2d 140 (1969), overruled on other grounds, Gonzales v. Xerox, 320 So.2d 163 (La.1975).

In Diaz v. Allstate Insurance Co., 433 So.2d 699 (La.1983), we held that state prosecuting attorneys are constitutional officers who serve in the judicial branch of the government. In keeping with our holding in Diaz and other persuasive authorities, several appellate courts of this state have ruled that prosecuting attorneys acting within the scope of their prosecutorial duties are entitled to essentially the same immunity extended to judges. Hill on Behalf of Hill v. Joseph, 94-1859 (La.App. 1st Cir. 5/5/95); 655 So.2d 486; Connor v. Reeves, 26,419 (La.App.2d Cir. 1/25/95); 649 So.2d 803, writ denied, 95-0771 (La.4/28/95); 653 So.2d 601; Dickerson v. Kemp, 540 So.2d 467 (La.App. 1 Cir.1989); Foster v. Powdrill, 463 So.2d 891 (La.App. 2d Cir.1985).

The overwhelming majority of courts in other states have extended absolute immunity to prosecutors when they are acting within their traditional roles as advocates for the state. 8 [96-0434 La. 4] Commentators similarly document the prevailing view that prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity from suit for malicious prosecution when acting within the scope of their traditional prosecutorial duties.

When they are officers of the state such as a prosecuting attorney or attorney general, it seems that attorneys at law are protected by an absolute privilege and that their immunity is indefeasible.... "Unless so protected, it would be but human that they might refrain from presenting to a grand jury or prosecuting a matter which in their judgment called for action but which a jury might, possibly determine otherwise." Fowler V. Harper et. al., The Law of Torts § 4.3, at 413-14 (2d ed.1986), citing Yaselli v. Goff, 8 F.2d 161, at 162 (S.D.N.Y.1925).

The Restatement (Second) Of Torts § 656 (1970) likewise provides that a "public prosecutor acting in his official capacity is absolutely privileged to initiate, institute, or continue criminal proceedings." See also, W. Page Keeton et. al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 132, at 1056-59 (5th ed.1984); 52 Am.Jur.2d Malicious Prosecution § 67 (1964).

[96-0434 La. 5] Chief among the reasons most often cited for granting absolute prosecutorial immunity are concern that constant fear of later civil suits for damages may chill the vigorous prosecution of those charged with violating state statutes; that such fears may deter competent people from seeking office; and that defense of claims for malicious prosecution may drain valuable time and effort. Balancing the interests of the plaintiff in a malicious prosecution action against the interests of the system of justice as a whole, Judge Learned Hand early observed:

As is so often the case, the answer must be found in a balance between the evils inevitable in either alternative. In this instance it has been thought in the end better to leave unredressed the wrongs done by dishonest officers than to subject those who try to do their duties to the constant dread of retaliation. Gregoire v. Biddle, 177 F.2d 579, 581 (2d Cir.1949), cert. denied, 339 U.S. 949, 70 S.Ct. 803, 94 L.Ed. 1363 (1950).

The same concerns that have served as a foundation for a grant of absolute prosecutorial immunity from state malicious prosecution charges were considered and deemed persuasive by the United States Supreme Court in determining whether to grant absolute prosecutorial immunity to a state prosecuting officer acting within the scope of his prosecutorial duties in a case alleging a violation of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 96 S.Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976). While the decision in Imbler is not binding on this court because it dealt with a federal cause of action rather than a state claim for malicious prosecution, the sweep of the opinion specifically takes in and approves the common-law rule of absolute immunity for a prosecutor acting within the scope of his duties. We find the reasoning of the Court regarding absolute prosecutorial immunity persuasive. Moreover, we note that we have harmonized our own state immunity rules with federal immunity principles in the past. 9

[96-0434 La. 6] In Imbler, the Court concluded that the immunity of a prosecutor is based upon the same considerations that support the extension of absolute immunity to judges and grand jurors acting within the scope of their duties. Id. at 423, 96 S.Ct. at 991. "These include the fear that harassment by unfounded litigation would cause a deflection of the prosecutor's energies from his public duties, and the possibility that he would shade his decisions instead of exercising the independence of judgment required by his public trust." Id. at 423, 96 S.Ct. at 991.

Distinguishing between absolute immunity, which will defeat a suit at the outset, and qualified immunity, which depends on circumstances and motivations which often must be established by evidence at trial, the Court concluded that extension of only a qualified immunity would pose a danger even to the honest prosecutor who might be called upon to defend his actions long after the conduct assailed. "Defending these decisions, often years after they were made, could impose unique and intolerable burdens upon a prosecutor responsible annually for hundreds of indictments and trials." Id. at 425-26, 96 S.Ct. at 993. 10 The Court concluded that a qualified immunity...

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