RESPONDENT: Richard Pachtman
LOCATION: District Attorney’s Office, County of Los Angeles
DOCKET NO.: 74-5435
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 424 US 409 (1976)
ARGUED: Nov 03, 1975
DECIDED: Mar 02, 1976
John P. Farrell - for respondent
Robert H. Bork - for United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court
Roger S. Hanson - for petitioner
Facts of the case
In 1961, Morris Hasson, a Los Angeles grocery store manager, was shot and killed during a robbery attempt. Paul Imbler was convicted of the murder after three eyewitnesses identified him as the gunman. After the trial, the prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Richard Pachtman, wrote to the Governor of California and described newly discovered evidence that undermined the testimony of one of the eyewitnesses. In light of the letter, Imbler challenged his incarceration in state court, where his petition was denied, and later in federal court. The federal district court found that Pachtman had knowingly used false testimony during the trial and suppressed evidence favorable to Imbler, so the district court ordered Imbler released from prison. Imbler then filed an action against Pachtman in federal court under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which allows a party to recover damages from any person who acts “under color of state law” to deprive another of a constitutional right. The district court held that Pachtman was immune for civil liability for acts done in his capacity as prosecutor and dismissed the complaint. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal on appeal.
Does a prosecutor have absolute immunity from civil liability for actions taken within the scope of his duties in bringing and pursuing a criminal prosecution?
Media for Imbler v. PachtmanAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 03, 1975 in Imbler v. Pachtman
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 02, 1976 in Imbler v. Pachtman
Warren E. Burger:
The judgments and opinion of the Court in 74-5435 Imbler v. Pachtman will be announced by Mr. Justice Powell.
Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:
Here on certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Sometime after petitioner's conviction of murder, the California prosecuting attorney, the respondent in this case, reveals a newly discovered evidence, relying in part on this evidence, the petition of ultimately one is released in Federal Habeas Corpus proceedings, he thereafter brought this section 1983 action, alleging that respondent in the prosecution had used false testimony and also has suppressed material evidence.
The Court of Appeals affirming the District Court, held that the prosecuting attorney is absolutely immune from a suit for damages under Section 1983 for action taken within the scope of his prosecutorial duties.
Under the common law a prosecutor alone has enjoyed complete immunity from suits for malicious prosecution.
It also has settled out that a judge is immune from Section 1983 damage claims, based on action taken within the scope of his judicial periods.
The same considerations of public policy that underlie these rules, apply to 1983 suite against a prosecutor. Although the immunity doctrine leaves the wrong criminal defender, without civil redress, a different rule would deceive a broader public interest.
Allying such suits would prevent the vigorous and fearless performance of the prosecutor's duties that is essential to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system.
We therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
Mr. Justice White has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Mr. Justice Brennan and Mr. Justice Marshall had joined.
Mr. Justice Stevens took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.