Prosecutorial Liability For Wrongful Prosecutions

On June 15, 2012, in Vania Minor v. State of Iowa the Iowa Supreme Court issued a decision clarifying the law regarding social workers’ liability for improper DHS investigations and the like.  Basically, the Iowa Supreme Court made it nearly impossible to do so.  But that follows a general trend — It’s awfully difficult, sometimes impossible, to sue government workers for this, that, and the other thing.  That makes sense when you think about it.  People are always unhappy with the government.  If every government worker was wide-open to liability for every decision that worker made, the government’s entire mechanism would grind to a halt.

One area of law that the court mentioned in its Minor decision was the potential civil rights liability of prosecutors for wrongful prosecutions against innocent people.  In an earlier post I discussed law enforcement’s liability in such situations.  It’s even more difficult to sue a prosecutor for a wrongful prosecution because prosecutors are generally completely immune from such claims.

For example, prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity from civil liability when they perform functions “intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process.”  Thus, a prosecutor has absolute immunity in initiating a prosecution and in presenting the State’s case. Acts falling within this function include the preparing and filing of trial information and motions.   Such acts also include decisions not to prosecute, decisions to defer prosecution, recommendations that criminal defendants pay court costs when prosecutions are dismissed or deferred, and for the training, supervision, and control of another prosecutor.

There are other areas though where prosecutors have some (albeit minimal) exposure to liability.  Prosecutors do not have absolute immunity when they perform investigatory acts before probable cause to arrest arises because police traditionally perform this function.  A few years ago a federal court of appeals allowed civil rights claims to proceed against a county attorney who was accused of obtaining, manufacturing, coercing and fabricating evidence before filing formal charges.   Further, prosecutors do not have absolute immunity when they give advice to the police to aid them in obtaining a confession.  Finally, absolute immunity does not shield a prosecutor who prepares and files a sworn affidavit to accompany a motion for an arrest warrant.


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