Monday, May 7, 2018
Immunity prevents a lawsuit against the Baltimore City State's Attorney for the prosecutions in the death of Freddie Gray, according to this opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
Freddie Gray, Jr., suffered fatal injuries while handcuffed and shackled in the custody of the Baltimore City Police Department. The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, led by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, conducted an investigation into Gray’s death. After the State Medical Examiner ruled Gray’s death a homicide, Major Samuel Cogen of the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office criminally charged six of the police officers involved in Gray’s arrest and detention. The same day, State’s Attorney Mosby announced the charges and read the supporting probable-cause statement to the public at a press conference. A grand jury subsequently indicted the officers on substantially similar counts, but ultimately, none was convicted.
Five of the charged officers—Officer Edward Michael Nero, Officer Garrett Edward Miller, Lieutenant Brian Scott Rice, Officer William Porter, and Sergeant Alicia White (“Officers”) —now seek to make State’s Attorney Mosby stand trial for malicious prosecution, defamation, and false light invasion of privacy. They claim that her role in independently investigating their conduct strips her of absolute prosecutorial immunity and that their bare allegations of malice or gross negligence overcome Maryland’s statutory immunity protections. We resoundingly reject the invitation to cast aside decades of Supreme Court and circuit precedent to narrow the immunity prosecutors enjoy. And we find no justification for denying Mosby the protection from suit that the Maryland legislature has granted her.
The court had little patience for the claims
In conclusion, none of the Officers’ claims can survive the motion-to-dismiss stage. That the Officers disagree with Mosby’s decision to prosecute—as most defendants do— or with the information in the application for Statement of Charges—which inherently contains defamatory information—does not entitle them to litigate their disagreement in court, and much less recover damages.
The Officers’ malicious-prosecution claims epitomize the “vexatious litigation” that absolute prosecutorial immunity is designed to preclude. See Pachaly v. City of Lynchburg, 897 F.2d 723, 727‒28 (4th Cir. 1990). Having “transform[ed] [their] resentment at being prosecuted into the ascription of improper and malicious actions to the State’s advocate,” see Imbler, 424 U.S. at 425, the Officers ask us depart from well-settled law so that they can force Mosby to defend her decision to seek justice on behalf of Freddie Gray. We find their arguments both meritless and disconcerting.
The Officers’ defamation and false-light claims are equally bereft of support. The Officers cite no facts showing that Mosby spoke at the press conference with malice or gross negligence, as required by the MTCA. Their allegations, accepted as true, do not even negate that Mosby had probable cause to charge them. And the Officers’ contention that Mosby acted outside the scope of her employment by telling the public that she would pursue justice borders on absurd.
Perhaps to the Officers’ chagrin, they must accept that they are subject to the same laws as every other defendant who has been prosecuted and acquitted. Those laws clearly bar the type of retaliatory suits that the Officers brought here. The district court therefore erred in allowing their claims to proceed.
Judge Wilkinson concurred
I wish only to underscore my colleague’s concern about the perils of appellees’ defamation claim. State’s Attorney Mosby is an elected official. After the death of Freddie Gray, her community, her constituents, and her city faced a crisis of confidence. Baltimore’s citizens had their faith shaken, not only in the police, but in the very ability of government to administer justice. As any of us would expect of our political leaders, Mosby responded to a crisis. And as all of us should demand from our political leaders, Mosby explained her actions to the public. At a press conference, she read from a charging document, praised investigators, and explained the basis of the prosecution. To say that an elected official exposes herself to liability by discharging her democratic duty to justify the decisions she was elected to make is to elevate tort law above our most cherished constitutional ideals...
By advancing a theory of tort liability for explanations of official acts, the officers here strike at the very heart of the democratic dialogue. Courts must repel such attacks. In doing so, we honor our “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be unlimited, robust, and wide-open” on all sides. Sullivan, 376 U.S. at 270.
Defamation law unbound is inimical to free expression. I thought the principle of New York Times v. Sullivan secure. But no. As the saying goes, the censors never sleep. Here they come again.