Legal Reference

Supreme Court Broadens Absolute Prosecutorial Immunity

Supreme say if cops falsely arrest and jail you - tough krap! They have a tough job to do and shouldn't be held liable for their mistakes!

And amazing enough governmet snitch and heroin addict Fink was involved in this case. He was also involved in a Phoenix case documented in the New Times where a man appeared to be falsely convicted on his testomony


Supreme Court Broadens Absolute Prosecutorial Immunity

Radley Balko | January 26, 2009, 8:10pm

The Supreme Court has unanimously overruled the Ninth Circuit in the case of Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, and broadened absolute prosecutorial immunity to include district attorneys whose poor supervision of subordinates may result in wrongful convictions. I wrote about the case last April:

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Thomas Goldstein, an ex-marine who was convicted of murdering his neighbor.

Goldstein served 24 years before his conviction was thrown out when the main witness against him was shown to have lied. That witness was a lifelong criminal who was given a deal on his own charges in exchange for testimony that Goldstein confessed to him in a jail cell. Goldstein alleges that the district attorney's office that prosecuted the case routinely used the testimony of so-called "jailhouse snitches" prosecutors knew or should have known weren't reliable.

Goldstein's case is unusual because he's not suing the prosecutor who convicted him, but John Van de Camp, the district attorney who supervised that prosecutor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has allowed Goldstein's case to go forward, causing the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to hear it.

This isn't terribly surprising, but it's too bad. All the incentives for prosecutors right now point toward winning convictions. There's very little to hold them accountable when they go too far.

Currently, even if a prosecutor knowingly withholds exculpatory evidence in a case that results in a wrongful conviction, he can't be sued.


Supreme Court rejects suit in Long Beach case The decision, in a case where a man was wrongfully convicted of murder, broadens protections for district attorneys and other chief prosecutors.

By David G. Savage

January 27, 2009

Reporting from Washington -- The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a lawsuit by a Los Angeles man wrongfully convicted of murder and gave district attorneys a broad shield against being sued even if their management mistakes send an innocent person to prison.

Thomas L. Goldstein, a former Marine convicted in a 1979 shooting in Long Beach, spent 24 years in prison largely on the word of a heroin addict who had worked as a jailhouse informant for police and prosecutors. Edward F. Fink lied on the witness stand when he denied receiving a benefit for testifying for police, a judge found.

Goldstein was freed in 2004, and he sued former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. John K. Van de Kamp and top deputy Curt Livesay, contending they allowed prosecutors to regularly use jailhouse informants and did not take steps to make sure they were telling the truth.

In Goldstein's case, the trial prosecutor did not know Fink was lying because other prosecutors in the sprawling district attorney's office did not share information.

The Supreme Court mostly set aside the facts of Goldstein's case and focused on the potential harm of allowing top prosecutors to be sued. District attorneys who are managing teams of prosecutors should not face the fear they might be sued years later by resentful suspects, the justices said.

In the past, the court said trial prosecutors were entitled to absolute immunity for their courtroom work. In Monday's ruling in Van de Kamp vs. Goldstein, the high court extended that shield to cover district attorneys and other chief prosecutors for any actions that involve prosecutions and trials.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said top prosecutors could be sued for "administrative" failures. The decision rejected Van de Kamp's claim of immunity and cleared Goldstein's lawsuit to proceed.

But the Supreme Court rejected the distinction between administrative and management tasks and said management of trial-related information was a prosecution function.

"We conclude that a prosecutor's absolute immunity extends to all these claims" about tracking jailhouse informants because they are "directly connected with the conduct of a trial," Justice Stephen G. Breyer said.

It was the fourth decision in a week siding with police and prosecutors. Last week, the court extended the so-called exclusionary rule and said tainted evidence could be used if police made an honest mistake in searching a suspect. In that case, an officer acted on an arrest warrant that should have been removed from a police computer.

That same day, the court also threw out a lawsuit against police in Utah who, based on the word of an informant, burst into a house without a warrant. The justices did not decide whether the search was illegal but concluded that police were immune from being sued.

In a second decision Monday, the court said police could stop and frisk a passenger in a stopped car, even if there was no reason to suspect the passenger had done anything wrong.

The ruling in favor of district attorneys is consistent with the Supreme Court's trend of limiting lawsuits, especially against the government.

Goldstein was living in Long Beach when he was arrested in a nighttime shooting in an alley near his home.

Several eyewitnesses gave conflicting descriptions. Some said the shooter was black. One witness pointed to Goldstein, who is white.

Investigators arranged to put Fink in a jail cell with Goldstein.

A heroin addict, Fink had been frequently arrested but received reduced sentences for helping the police. He later testified that Goldstein had confessed to the killing.

Years after the conviction, a grand jury in Los Angeles issued a report on the misuse of jailhouse informants and forced a series of changes by police and prosecutors.

"They are rarely used now," Van de Kamp said.

Despite the lawsuit, Goldstein and Van de Kamp said they had amiable conversations.

"I like Van de Kamp," Goldstein said. "He has worked for the fair administration of justice. He's done a lot for California's system of justice."

Van de Kamp was district attorney from 1976 to 1982, and California attorney general from 1983 to 1991.

More recently, he has chaired the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.

Van de Kamp called the decision "absolutely correct." A ruling in favor of Goldstein "would have opened the door to a flood of questionable lawsuits," he said.

"At the same time, prosecutors continue to have an ethical obligation to ensure fair convictions. There's a lot more they can work on to achieve that."

Goldstein, 60, said he was upset by the decision. "This case was an opportunity for the Supreme Court to rule that every D.A.'s office in America should be required to have an information system on jailhouse informants," he said. "If that happened, there would be fewer wrongful convictions."

Goldstein said he had a separate suit pending in federal court against Long Beach and four detectives.


Wrongly convicted man can't sue prosecutor

Mon Jan 26, 2009 12:31pm EST

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Los Angeles County's former top prosecutor and his deputy cannot be sued by a man wrongly imprisoned for 24 years based on a jailhouse informant's false testimony.

The high court unanimously ruled that supervisory prosecutors are entitled to immunity from civil rights lawsuits that seek damages for the failure to develop proper policies to share information about informants.

The decision was a defeat for Thomas Goldstein, who had been convicted of a 1979 murder in Long Beach, California, on the strength of a jailhouse informant's testimony that he had confessed to the crime.

The informant testified in court that he received no benefit in return for his testimony, but evidence later emerged that he had struck a deal to get a lighter sentence.

A federal appeals court ruled that Goldstein had been wrongly convicted. He was released from prison in 2004.

Goldstein then sued former District Attorney John Van de Kamp and his former chief deputy, claiming that as supervisors they had a policy that relied on jailhouse informants even though it sometimes resulted in false evidence.

The Supreme Court held in 1976 that prosecutors acting as part of their official duties have immunity, but the ruling in Goldstein's case made clear immunity also extended to supervisory prosecutors and their managerial duties.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the opinion that immunity covered claims about a failure to train or supervise prosecutors or to set up an information system with material that calls into question the truthfulness of informants.

Breyer said allowing the lawsuit to go forward would permit criminal defendants to bring claims for other trial-related training or supervisory failings, affecting the way in which prosecutors carried out their basic courtroom tasks.

In another decision involving criminal defendants, the court unanimously ruled that officers may frisk a passenger of a vehicle lawfully stopped for a traffic violation as long as they reasonably suspect the person is armed and dangerous.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in the opinion that an Arizona court was wrong to rule that the police could pat down an armed and dangerous passenger in a vehicle only if they believed the suspect had been involved in criminal activity.


Justices shield prosecutors from being sued for mistakes

By David G. Savage | Washington Bureau 11:23 AM CST, January 26, 2009

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit Monday from a Los Angeles man who spent 24 years in prison for a murder he did not commit and ruled that county prosecutors are shielded from being sued, even if their management mistakes lead to mistaken convictions.

In a 9-0 decision, the high court expanded the rule that prosecutors are immune from suits for any actions "directly connected with the conduct of a trial."

The justices said prosecutors should not have to work in fear that resentful crime suspects may sue them later.

In the past, the court had said courtroom prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity from lawsuits. Monday's ruling extends that shield to district attorneys who manage large teams of prosecutors.

However, it leaves wrongfully convicted persons with little remedy for their ordeal.

Thomas Goldstein, an ex-Marine, was charged with a shooting in his Long Beach neighborhood in 1979 even though there was little evidence to tie him to the crime. Several eye-witnesses gave conflicting descriptions, and none pointed convincingly to Goldstein.

But investigators arranged to put a heroin addict and police informer into a jail cell with Goldstein, and the informer, Edward Fink, recounted that Goldstein had confessed to the crime.

Goldstein was convicted of the murder in 1980 and spent 24 years in prison before a judge ordered him released. In the intervening years, a grand jury in Los Angeles had issued a devastating report on the misuse of jailhouse informants by the Los Angeles County District Attorneys Office, the nation's largest.

Upon his release, Goldstein sued former L.A. District Atty. John Van DeKamp and his chief deputy, Curt Livesay, and asserted their management failure led to his wrongful conviction. He said they had failed to create a system to track the use of jailhouse informants.

The prosecutors in Goldstein's case did not know Fink had testified in numerous other cases and received reduced sentences for doing so.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Van de Kamp's claim of immunity and cleared Goldstein's suit to proceed. The appeals court said prosecutors were immune from suits involving their courtroom actions, but not their management decisions.

The Supreme Court rejected that distinction today in Van DeKamp vs. Goldstein.

"We conclude that a prosecutor's absolute immunity extends to all these claims" about tracking jailhouse informants because they are "directly connected with the conduct of a trial," said Justice David Souter.