April 2, 2012
Supreme Court Action Today: Ooops, and §1983 In The Context of Witness Immunity And Strip Searches
The Supreme Court issued two opinions and a dismissal of certiorari as improvidently granted this morning. The order of dismissal affects the case of Vasquez v. United States (11-199). That case was argued on March 20th. The summary of the lower court decision (with links) and the issue that was before the Supreme Court are available at SCOTUSblog.
The first opinion is from the case Rehberg v. Paulk (10-788). That case involves whether a witness before a grand jury has immunity for allegedly conspiring to present false testimony and presenting false testimony. Respondent Paulk testified on three separate occasions which resulted in three separate indictments against Rehberg. Paulk was the only witness at each grand jury. All three indictments were dismissed. Rehberg filed a §1983 action against Paulk. The District Court denied a motion to dismiss and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed holding that the law of the Circuit granted Paulk absolute immunity in these circumstances. The Supreme Court took up the case to resolve a split in the Circuits, and affirmed the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit.
The Court stated that §1983 was not meant as a radical departure from ordinary tort law when it was passed in 1871. Taking what it called a “functional approach,” the Court reviewed precedent in which absolute immunity was granted. These included legislative statements made by legislators, activities of judges within the scope of judicial authority, prosecutors in the role of advocate, and witnesses at trial for libel and slander claims against them even in circumstances where they were maliciously false. The Court also stated that its precedents hold that trial witnesses have absolute immunity under §1983 for any claims made against their testimony. Immunity for trial witnesses applies similarly to witnesses before the grand jury. The Court disregarded arguments to the contrary for policy and other reasons, choosing not to make distinctions in its ruling. Justice Alito delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.
The second case is getting a bit of press. The case is Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington (10-945). Florence was arrested on a traffic stop after the arresting State Trooper consulted a database which indicated Florence was wanted on a bench warrant for failing to appear at a hearing to enforce a fine. He was held at two different jails. Each time he was subjected to a strip search and given a detailed physical examination. He subsequently filed a §1983 complaint alleging that persons arrested for minor offenses should not be subject to invasive searches unless prison officials have reason to suspect concealment of drugs, weapons, or other contraband. The trial court granted summary judgment and the Third Circuit reversed.
The Supreme Court held that the search procedures in place struck a balance between an individual’s privacy and the needs of correctional institutions. Correctional authorities have an interest in preventing contraband from entering facilities. They need to identify individual characteristics such as tattoos and other identifying marks that may indicate membership in gangs to prevent gang violence. They need to screen arrestees for medical conditions. The seriousness of the crime is a poor predictor as to who has contraband. The scheme proposed by Florence is both unworkable and is not required by the Constitution.
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Alito and Thomas. Justice Thomas did not join into Part IV which discussed that the Court’s opinion did not foreclose circumstances where a strip search is not justified, presumably because he doesn’t believe such circumstances would arise. As he is silent, that is pure speculation. However, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito wrote individual concurring opinions agreeing that the Court should not foreclose itself from cases where an exception may arise. Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan. [MG]