Nahmod Law

The Intersection of Rehberg (Absolute Witness Immunity) and Section 1983 Malicious Prosecution

What is the relation between allegedly false grand jury testimony by a police officer (protected by absolute witness immunity) followed by an indictment (thereby establishing probable cause) and a section 1983 malicious prosecution claim, one of whose elements is the absence of probable cause?

(see generally, Nahmod, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (2019), ch. 3 on section 1983 malicious prosecution and ch. 7 on witness immunity).

The Sixth Circuit has worked through, and clarified, this relation is a series of such cases.

Sanders v. Jones

The first such case, Sanders v. Jones, 845 F.3d 721 (6th Cir. 2017), as amended on denial of reh’g, en banc (Mar. 20, 2017), involved a claim against a police officer who allegedly gave false grand jury testimony identifying the plaintiff as the person who sold illegal drugs to a confidential informant. The officer moved for summary judgment based in part on absolute immunity.

Ruling in the officer’s favor on this issue, the Sixth Circuit observed that this “defense presents a question of first impression about how the Supreme Court’s provision of absolute immunity for grand jury witnesses in Rehberg v. Paulk, 566 U.S. 356 (2012), intersects with the Sixth Circuit’s requirements for malicious prosecution claims where a grand jury indicted the plaintiff.” The court concluded that Rehberg’s absolute immunity for grand jury testimony precluded the plaintiff’s claim because “she cannot rebut the indictment’s presumption of probable cause without using [defendant]’s grand jury testimony.”

King v. Harwood

Thereafter, the Sixth Circuit, in King v. Harwood, 852 F.3d 568 (6th Cir. 2017), somewhat more narrowly described the intersection of Rehberg and Sanders as follows:

Thus, while Sanders may control the outcome of many [section 1983] malicious-prosecution cases in which the sole or primary act of the defendant law-enforcement officer is delivering grand-jury testimony, Sanders does not control our decision here. … Rehberg does not afford [defendant] absolute immunity for his actions that are prior to, and independent of, his grand-jury testimony. And because [plaintiff] has alleged that [defendant] set her prosecution in motion [by seeking warrants “despite the absence of probable cause and making knowing or reckless false statements implicating plaintiff in his investigative report”] … [plaintiff] may properly base her malicious-prosecution claim on those actions by [defendant] without triggering the absolute immunity established by Rehberg.

Miller v. Maddox

Following King, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment against the plaintiff who had filed a section 1983 Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim against an officer. The officer allegedly made false statements that resulted in plaintiff’s arrest, charges and indictment for reckless driving and resisting arrest. The court ruled that the plaintiff could establish an exception to the general rule that the issuance of an indictment conclusively establishes probable cause. First, the officer initiated the criminal prosecution because, even though he did not speak directly with the prosecutor, he swore out a warrant affidavit submitted to the night commissioner and was the only witness to testify in the preliminary hearing. Second, the King exception to the general rule applied to create a “mere rebuttable presumption of probable cause.” So the plaintiff was entitled to rebut that presumption: the false statements were material to plaintiff’s prosecution because there was no other evidence that would have allowed the charges to proceed to the grand jury otherwise, and the defendant’s false statements were apparently not used during the grand jury proceedings. Miller v. Maddox, 866 F.3d 386 (6th Cir. 2017).

Mills v. Barnard

Finally, in Mills v. Barnard, 869 F.3d 473, 480 (6th Cir. 2017), reh’g en banc denied, 10-12-17, the Sixth Circuit used King to point out that “[t]he existence of an indictment is thus not a talisman that always wards off a malicious-prosecution claim.” Here, a post-indictment DNA report that could have exculpated the plaintiff was the “linchpin of the prosecution’s probable cause” for the continuing detention of the plaintiff. Judge Griffin dissented, 869 F.3d at 487, arguing on various grounds that the district court properly dismissed the plaintiff’s section 1983 Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim.

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Written by snahmod

September 23, 2019 at 8:49 am

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