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U.S. Supreme Court says district attorneys are immune from wrongful-conviction suits

In a unanimous ruling, the nation's high court throws out a lawsuit from a Los Angeles man who spent 24 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

January 27, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a lawsuit by a Los Angeles man wrongfully convicted of murder and gave district attorneys a broad shield against being sued even if their management mistakes send an innocent person to prison.

Thomas L. Goldstein, a former Marine convicted in a 1979 shooting in Long Beach, spent 24 years in prison largely on the word of a heroin addict who had worked as a jailhouse informant for police and prosecutors. Edward F. Fink lied on the witness stand when he denied receiving a benefit for testifying for police, a judge found.

Goldstein was freed in 2004, and he sued former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. John K. Van de Kamp and top deputy Curt Livesay, contending they allowed prosecutors to regularly use jailhouse informants and did not take steps to make sure they were telling the truth.

In Goldstein's case, the trial prosecutor did not know Fink was lying because other prosecutors in the sprawling district attorney's office did not share information.

The Supreme Court mostly set aside the facts of Goldstein's case and focused on the potential harm of allowing top prosecutors to be sued. District attorneys who are managing teams of prosecutors should not face the fear they might be sued years later by resentful suspects, the justices said.

In the past, the court said trial prosecutors were entitled to absolute immunity for their courtroom work. In Monday's ruling in Van de Kamp vs. Goldstein, the high court extended that shield to cover district attorneys and other chief prosecutors for any actions that involve prosecutions and trials.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said top prosecutors could be sued for "administrative" failures. The decision rejected Van de Kamp's claim of immunity and cleared Goldstein's lawsuit to proceed.

But the Supreme Court rejected the distinction between administrative and management tasks and said management of trial-related information was a prosecution function.

"We conclude that a prosecutor's absolute immunity extends to all these claims" about tracking jailhouse informants because they are "directly connected with the conduct of a trial," Justice Stephen G. Breyer said.

It was the fourth decision in a week siding with police and prosecutors. Last week, the court extended the so-called exclusionary rule and said tainted evidence could be used if police made an honest mistake in searching a suspect. In that case, an officer acted on an arrest warrant that should have been removed from a police computer.

That same day, the court also threw out a lawsuit against police in Utah who, based on the word of an informant, burst into a house without a warrant. The justices did not decide whether the search was illegal but concluded that police were immune from being sued.

In a second decision Monday, the court said police could stop and frisk a passenger in a stopped car, even if there was no reason to suspect the passenger had done anything wrong.

The ruling in favor of district attorneys is consistent with the Supreme Court's trend of limiting lawsuits, especially against the government.

Goldstein was living in Long Beach when he was arrested in a nighttime shooting in an alley near his home.

Several eyewitnesses gave conflicting descriptions. Some said the shooter was black. One witness pointed to Goldstein, who is white.

Investigators arranged to put Fink in a jail cell with Goldstein.

A heroin addict, Fink had been frequently arrested but received reduced sentences for helping the police. He later testified that Goldstein had confessed to the killing.

Years after the conviction, a grand jury in Los Angeles issued a report on the misuse of jailhouse informants and forced a series of changes by police and prosecutors.

"They are rarely used now," Van de Kamp said.

Despite the lawsuit, Goldstein and Van de Kamp said they had amiable conversations.

"I like Van de Kamp," Goldstein said. "He has worked for the fair administration of justice. He's done a lot for California's system of justice."

Van de Kamp was district attorney from 1976 to 1982, and California attorney general from 1983 to 1991.

More recently, he has chaired the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.

Van de Kamp called the decision "absolutely correct." A ruling in favor of Goldstein "would have opened the door to a flood of questionable lawsuits," he said.

"At the same time, prosecutors continue to have an ethical obligation to ensure fair convictions. There's a lot more they can work on to achieve that."

Goldstein, 60, said he was upset by the decision. "This case was an opportunity for the Supreme Court to rule that every D.A.'s office in America should be required to have an information system on jailhouse informants," he said. "If that happened, there would be fewer wrongful convictions."

Goldstein said he had a separate suit pending in federal court against Long Beach and four detectives.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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