Connick v. Thompson
Annotate this Case
563 U.S. ___ (2011)
OCTOBER TERM, 2010
CONNICK V. THOMPSON
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
CONNICK, DISTRICT ATTORNEY, et al. v. THOMPSON
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit
No. 09–571. Argued October 6, 2010—Decided March 29, 2011
Petitioner the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office concedes that, in prosecuting respondent Thompson for attempted armed robbery, prosecutors violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83, by failing to disclose a crime lab report. Because of his robbery conviction, Thompson elected not to testify at his later murder trial and was convicted. A month before his scheduled execution, the lab report was discovered. A reviewing court vacated both convictions, and Thompson was found not guilty in a retrial on the murder charge. He then filed suit against the district attorney’s office under 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging, inter alia, that the Brady violation was caused by the office’s deliberate indifference to an obvious need to train prosecutors to avoid such constitutional violations. The district court held that, to prove deliberate indifference, Thompson did not need to show a pattern of similar Brady violations when he could demonstrate that the need for training was obvious. The jury found the district attorney’s office liable for failure to train and awarded Thompson damages. The Fifth Circuit affirmed by an equally divided court.
Held: A district attorney’s office may not be held liable under §1983 for failure to train its prosecutors based on a single Brady violation. Pp. 6–20.
(a) Plaintiffs seeking to impose §1983 liability on local governments must prove that their injury was caused by “action pursuant to official municipal policy,” which includes the decisions of a government’s lawmakers, the acts of its policymaking officials, and practices so persistent and widespread as to practically have the force of law. Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U. S. 658, 691. A local government’s decision not to train certain employees about their legal duty to avoid violating citizens’ rights may rise to the level of an official government policy for §1983 purposes, but the failure to train must amount to “deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the [untrained employees] come into contact.” Canton v. Harris, 489 U. S. 378, 388. Deliberate indifference in this context requires proof that city policymakers disregarded the “known or obvious consequence” that a particular omission in their training program would cause city employees to violate citizens’ constitutional rights. Board of Comm’rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown, 520 U. S. 397, 410. Pp. 6–9.
(b) A pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is “ordinarily necessary” to demonstrate deliberate indifference. Bryan Cty., supra, at 409. Without notice that a course of training is deficient, decisionmakers can hardly be said to have deliberately chosen a training program that will cause violations of constitutional rights. Thompson does not contend that he proved a pattern of similar Brady violations, and four reversals by Louisiana courts for dissimilar Brady violations in the 10 years before the robbery trial could not have put the district attorney’s office on notice of the need for specific training. Pp. 9–10.
(c) Thompson mistakenly relies on the “single-incident” liability hypothesized in Canton, contending that the Brady violation in his case was the “obvious” consequence of failing to provide specific Brady training and that this “obviousness” showing can substitute for the pattern of violations ordinarily necessary to establish municipal culpability. In Canton, the Court theorized that if a city armed its police force and deployed them into the public to capture fleeing felons without training the officers in the constitutional limitation on the use of deadly force, the failure to train could reflect the city’s deliberate indifference to the highly predictable consequence, namely, violations of constitutional rights. Failure to train prosecutors in their Brady obligations does not fall within the narrow range of Canton’s hypothesized single-incident liability. The obvious need for specific legal training present in Canton’s scenario—police academy applicants are unlikely to be familiar with constitutional constraints on deadly force and, absent training, cannot obtain that knowledge—is absent here. Attorneys are trained in the law and equipped with the tools to interpret and apply legal principles, understand constitutional limits, and exercise legal judgment. They receive training before entering the profession, must usually satisfy continuing education requirements, often train on the job with more experienced attorneys, and must satisfy licensing standards and ongoing ethical obligations. Prosecutors not only are equipped but are ethically bound to know what Brady entails and to perform legal research when they are uncertain. Thus, recurring constitutional violations are not the “obvious consequence” of failing to provide prosecutors with formal in-house training. The nuance of the allegedly necessary training also distinguishes the case from the example in Canton. Here, the prosecutors were familiar with the general Brady rule. Thus, Thompson cannot rely on the lack of an ability to cope with constitutional situations that underlies the Canton hypothetical, but must assert that prosecutors were not trained about particular Brady evidence or the specific scenario related to the violation in his case. That sort of nuance simply cannot support an inference of deliberate indifference here. Contrary to the holding below, it does not follow that, because Brady has gray areas and some Brady decisions are difficult, prosecutors will so obviously make wrong decisions that failing to train them amounts, as it must, to “a decision by the city itself to violate the Constitution.” Canton, 489 U. S., at 395 (O’Connor, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Pp. 11–19.
578 F. 3d 293, reversed.
Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Alito, J., joined. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined.