U.S. Supreme Court to Clarify Municipal Liability Standard for Wrongfully Convicted Defendants

subpic3Cases of police and prosecutorial misconduct continuously pop up in the media. Television stations report stories of defendants wrongfully convicted who serve years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

Luckily, the law says that defendants in certain situations who are erroneously sent to prison can seek compensation in civil court for constitutional violations or illegal procedures committed by overzealous prosecutors.

But, obtaining legal recourse in these instances isn’t as easy as it sounds. In most cases, state actors acting in their official capacity are immune from liability and thus cannot be sued by wrongfully convicted defendants unless certain factors are present.

In Thompson v. Connick, however, a court ruled that the facts of the case equated to municipal liability under the law. The case now sits in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. Many are now-albeit patiently-waiting for a ruling from the high court.

The Case

John Thompson was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in May 1985. He served 18 years in a Louisiana state prison – 14 of which were served in solitary confinement – before he was exonerated due to prosecutorial misconduct.

Specifically, during Thompson’s incarceration, an investigation revealed that prosecutors from the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office in New Orleans committed prosecutorial misconduct. Thompson was later exonerated for the crime.

After his release, he sued the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office for wrongful prosecution. A jury awarded Thompson $14 million in damages. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the judgment.

However, the District Attorney’s Office disagrees with the ruling and argues that the prosecutorial misconduct (a Brady violation) in the case against Thompson did not amount to municipal liability.

The Brady Violation

A Brady violation (in reference to a 1963 case called Brady v. Maryland) occurs when the prosecution in a criminal case deprives a defendant of due process by suppressing material evidence favorable to the defendant-evidence that essentially determines the guilt or punishment of an accused. In its most simple terms, the violation occurs when an attorney hides important evidence.

In Thompson, the prosecutor (Connick) committed a Brady violation because he failed to turn over blood work related to the case – vital evidence that would have proved Thompson’s innocence.

Municipal Liability?

Depending on the circumstances, Brady violations can amount to municipal liability.

However, in order for a municipality (in this case, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office) to be liable for a Brady violation, there must be a pattern of violations that occur as a result of a particular municipal policy or custom.

In this case, Thompson argues that the prosecutor failed to turn over exculpatory evidence and that this failure was due to the District Attorney’s Office’s failure to adequately train its prosecutors of this requirement.

However, the failure to turn over the exculpatory evidence in this case was a single violation-not a pattern.

But the lower court in the case still determined that the District Attorney’s Office was responsible and that, despite only a single Brady violation, the failure to train still amounted to municipal liability. But why?

The lower court relied on a case called City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris in making their ruling.

In Canton, the court held that municipal liability exists (if only a single constitutional violation occurred) in instances where a municipality fails to adequately train their employees and the failure to train amounted to “deliberate indifference.” (Deliberate indifference refers to conscious or reckless disregard of the consequences of a person’s acts or omissions.)

But, in Canton-the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office points out-the court held municipal liability exists where a municipality’s failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom “police” come into contact.

So, if there is only a single constitutional violation, will there still be municipal liability where a municipality’s failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom “prosecutors” come into contact?

The parties hope the U.S. Supreme Court will clarify this when it issues a ruling due to come out fall 2011.