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Let the Prosecutor Decide!

I was all set to write a long post on the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Tatum v. Moody, then I found that Daniel Barer at the Government Liability Update had beat me to it! Read his post for the juicy details!

In Tatum, the Ninth Circuit held that under some circumstances law enforcement officers may be liable under § 1983 if they withhold exculpatory information from prosecutors. According to the court:

“Where, as here, investigating officers, acting with deliberate indifference or reckless disregard for a suspect’s right to freedom from unjustified loss of liberty, fail to disclose potentially dispositive exculpatory evidence to the prosecutors, leading to the lengthy detention of an innocent man, they violate the due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Unlike a lot of court decisions, the Tatum court also tells officers how to avoid this liability, don’t hide information from the prosecutor. As the court notes, prosecutors have a global perspective on the case, a rigorous understanding of the applicable law, and legal authority to dismiss charges, if appropriate. So tell them everything and let them decide what needs to be disclosed!

For lawyers handling police practices cases, this is a must read decision. The highlights:

  • It invites Supreme Court review by following circuit precedent that post-arrest incarceration claims arise under the Fourteenth Amendment while footnoting that its holding conflicts with at least one other Circuit, and that a plurality of Supreme Court justices have also suggested the Fourth Amendment governs such claims.
  • It also reconciles some conflicting Ninth Circuit case law in the area.
  • Discusses the distinct responsibilities of jailers, investigating officers and prosecutors faced with claims or evidence that the wrong person has been arrested.

Just be sure to read the whole case as even the last footnote makes an important point!