Rehberg v. Paulk
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NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
REHBERG v. PAULK
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit
No. 10–788. Argued November 1, 2011—Decided April 2, 2012
Respondent, the chief investigator for a district attorney’s office, testified at grand jury proceedings that resulted in petitioner’s indictment. After the indictments were dismissed, petitioner brought an action under 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging that respondent had conspired to present and did present false testimony to the grand jury. The Federal District Court denied respondent’s motion to dismiss on immunity grounds, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that respondent had absolute immunity from a §1983 claim based on his grand jury testimony.
Held: A witness in a grand jury proceeding is entitled to the same absolute immunity from suit under §1983 as a witness who testifies at trial. Pp. 3–18.
(a) Section 1983, which derives from §1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, was not meant to effect a radical departure from ordinary tort law and the common-law immunities applicable in tort suits. See, e.g., Burns v. Reed, 500 U. S. 478 . This interpretation of §1983 has been reaffirmed by the Court time and again. Thus, the Court looks to the common law for guidance in determining the scope of the immunities available in actions brought under §1983. See Kalina v. Fletcher, 522 U. S. 118 . Taking a “functional approach,” see, e.g., Forrester v. White, 484 U. S. 219 , the Court identifies those governmental functions that were historically viewed as so important and vulnerable to interference by means of litigation that some form of absolute immunity from civil liability was needed to ensure that they are “ ‘performed with independence and without fear of consequences,’ ” Pierson v. Ray, 386 U. S. 547 .
The Court’s functional approach is tied to the common law’s identification of functions meriting the protection of absolute immunity, but the Court’s precedents have not mechanically duplicated the precise scope of the absolute immunity the common law provided to protect those functions. For example, it was common in 1871 for cases to be prosecuted by private parties, who did not enjoy absolute immunity from suit. But as the prosecutorial function was increasingly assumed by public officials, common-law courts held that public prosecutors, unlike their private predecessors, were absolutely immune from the types of tort claims that an aggrieved or vengeful criminal defendant was most likely to assert. This adaptation of prosecutorial immunity accommodated the special needs of public, as opposed to private, prosecutors. Thus, when the issue of prosecutorial immunity under §1983 reached this Court in Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U. S. 409 , the Court did not simply apply the scope of immunity recognized by common-law courts as of 1871 but instead relied substantially on post-1871 cases extending broad immunity to public prosecutors sued for common-law torts. Neither has the Court suggested that §1983 is simply a federalized amalgamation of pre-existing common-law claims. The new federal claim created by §1983 differs in important ways from pre-existing common-law torts. Accordingly, both the scope of the new tort and the scope of the absolute immunity available in §1983 actions differ in some respects from the common law. Pp. 3―9.
(b) A trial witness sued under §1983 enjoys absolute immunity from any claim based on his testimony. Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U. S. 352 . Without absolute immunity, the truth-seeking process would be impaired as witnesses might be reluctant to testify, and even a witness who took the stand “might be inclined to shade his testimony in favor of the potential plaintiff” for “fear of subsequent liability.” Id., at 333. These factors apply with equal force to grand jury witnesses. In both contexts, a witness’ fear of retaliatory litigation may deprive the tribunal of critical evidence. And in neither context is the deterrent of potential civil liability needed to prevent false testimony because other sanctions, chiefly prosecution for perjury, provide a sufficient deterrent.
For the reasons identified in Briscoe, supra, at 342–344, there is no reason to distinguish law enforcement witnesses from lay witnesses in §1983 actions. And the rule that a grand jury witness has absolute immunity from any §1983 claim based on the witness’ testimony may not be circumvented by claiming that a grand jury witness conspired to present false testimony, or by using evidence of the witness’ testimony to support any other §1983 claim concerning the initiation or maintenance of a prosecution. Were it otherwise, a criminal defendant turned civil plaintiff could reframe a claim to attack the preparatory activity—such as a preliminary discussion in which the witness relates the substance of his intended testimony—rather than the absolutely immune actions themselves. Pp. 9−12.
(c) Petitioner’s main argument is that under Malley v. Briggs, 475 U. S. 335 −341, and Kalina v. Fletcher, 522 U. S. 118 , grand jury witnesses who are “complaining witnesses” are not entitled to absolute immunity. But at the time §1983’s predecessor was enacted, a “complaining witness” was a party who procured an arrest and initiated a criminal prosecution. A “complaining witness” might testify, either before a grand jury or at trial, but testifying was not a necessary characteristic of a “complaining witness.” Thus, testifying, whether before a grand jury or at trial, was not the distinctive function performed by a “complaining witness.” A “complaining witness” cannot be held liable for perjurious trial testimony, see Briscoe, 460 U. S., at 326, and there is no more reason why a “complaining witness” should be subject to liability for testimony before a grand jury.
Once the distinctive function performed by a “complaining witness” is understood, it is apparent that a law enforcement officer who testifies before a grand jury is not comparable to a “complaining witness” because it is not the officer who makes the critical decision to press criminal charges, but the prosecutor. It would be anomalous to permit a police officer testifying before a grand jury to be sued for maliciously procuring an unjust prosecution when it is the prosecutor, who is shielded by absolute immunity, who is actually responsible for the decision to initiate a prosecution. Petitioner also contends that the deterrent effect of civil liability is more needed in grand jury proceedings because trial witnesses face cross-examination. But the force of that argument is more than offset by the problem that allowing such civil actions would create—subversion of grand jury secrecy, which is essential to the proper functioning of the grand jury system. See United States v. Sells Engineering, Inc., 463 U. S. 418 . And finally, contrary to petitioner’s suggestion, recognizing absolute immunity for grand jury witnesses does not create an insupportable distinction between States that use grand juries and States that permit felony prosecutions to be brought by complaint or information. Most States that do not require an indictment for felonies provide a preliminary hearing at which witnesses testify, and the lower courts have held that preliminary hearing witnesses are protected by the same immunity accorded grand jury witnesses. Pp. 12−18.
611 F. 3d 828, affirmed.
Alito, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.