Monday, March 23, 2015
The Ninth Circuit ruled last week that officers who falsely testified against a defendant based on shoddy investigation reports did not enjoy the traditional absolute immunity that witnesses enjoy against a civil suit. The ruling means that the defendant's case against the officers can go forward.
The case, Lisker v. City of Los Angeles, grew out of a wrongful conviction for second-degree murder based upon two police officers' false testimony that was based on shoddy investigation reports. The defendant, Lisker, who served over twenty-six years in custody, sued the officers for civil rights violations under Section 1983. The officers claimed they enjoyed absolute immunity because they were witnesses against him at trial.
But the Ninth Circuit rejected that claim. The court ruled that the officers' testimony was based upon their investigation reports, and, as such, looked more like a non-testimonial act (like "tampering with documentary or physical evidence or preventing witnesses from coming forward," which is not a basis for absolute immunity) than testimony (which is). The court also said that the policy reasons behind absolute immunity didn't apply to the investigative materials here:
Absolute witness immunity is motivated by the recognition that "[a] witness who knows that he might be forced to pay damages, might be inclined to shade his testimony in favor of the potential plaintiff, to magnify uncertainties, and thus to deprive the finder of fact of candid, objective, and undistorted evidence." That immunity extends to conspiracies to testify falsely for practical reasons, as a plaintiff could otherwise easily undermine the interest in witness candor by challenging the conspiracy rather than the testimony itself. But when defendants have "dual roles as witness and fabricator," extending protection from the testimony to the fabricated evidence "would transform the immunity from a shield to ensure" candor into "a sword allowing them to trample the statutory and constitutional rights of others." The detectives' ultimate testimony "does not serve to cloak these actions with absolute testimonial immunity"; if it did, they would be rewarded for "compound[ing] a constitutional wrong."