Connick v. Thompson

Issues 

Is a single failure by prosecutors to provide exculpatory evidence to a defendant sufficient to establish failure-to-train liability against a District Attorney’s office?

Oral argument: 
October 6, 2010

John Thompson was wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years following a trial during which the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence, in violation of Brady v. Maryland.Thompson brought suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the district attorney's office is liable for failing to properly train its employees on the requirements of Brady. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found in favor of assigning liability to the district attorney's office. Petitioners, including District Attorney Harry Connick, appealed to the Supreme Court. Connick claims that there was no obvious need to train prosecutors regarding Brady standards and that liability should not attach to the office when there was no notice that the training program needed reform. Respondent Thompson contends that the prosecutors’ lack of training amounted to a deliberate indifference to preserving constitutional rights and that liability may properly attach to the district attorney's office without a past history of violations. This decision will determine the extent to which a municipality may be liable for a single action by one of its employees.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Does imposing failure-to-train liability on a district attorney's office for a single Brady violation contravene the rigorous culpability and causation standards of Canton and Bryan County?

Facts 

In April 1985, shortly before his murder trial, a Louisiana state court convicted Respondent John Thompson of attempted armed robbery. Several weeks later in May 1985, the same court convicted Thompson of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.

Fourteen years later, in 1999, an investigator discovered that prosecutors had failed to present an important crime lab report in the attempted armed robbery case. The lab report suggested that the perpetrator of the attempted armed robbery had type B blood. Thompson has type O blood. Based on that new evidence, a Louisiana court vacated the attempted robbery conviction. Subsequently, a Louisiana court of appeals reversed Thompson’s murder conviction on the grounds that the improper attempted armed robbery conviction had deprived Thompson of his constitutional right to testify in his own defense at the murder trial.

After his release, Thompson sued the District Attorney’s office that had withheld the crucial evidence and several officials, including Petitioner District Attorney Harry Connick, in their official and individual capacity. Thompson Only Thompson’s 42 U.S.C. §1983 civil rights claim for wrongful suppression of exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland proceeded to trial. Under the theory that Connick’s deliberate indifference to an obvious need to train, monitor, or supervise his prosecutors had caused the Brady violation, the jury awarded Thompson $14 million in damages.

The general rule of Brady is that prosecutors must disclose evidence favorable to the accused. Thompson; The District Attorney’s office did not provide formal training regarding Brady. The assistant district attorneys, however, were familiar with the general rule of Brady, and in the many cases the office handled in the ten years prior to Thompson’s only four convictions were overturned based on Brady violations. There were no similar failures to disclose lab reports in any cases handled by the office before or after Thompson’s trial, and three witnesses testified that the office had a policy of disclosing all crime lab reports.

In this case, an assistant district attorney intentionally suppressed the blood evidence that would have helped Thompson. The attorney checked out the blood evidence and never brought it back. The lab report also disappeared until its discovery fourteen years later.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana denied Connick’s efforts to alter the decision of the jury, stating that the jury was justified in its decisions against Connick based on the evidence at trial. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether a single Brady violation is sufficient to establish failure-to-train liability against a District Attorney’s office.

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Discussion

The Supreme Court will determine whether a District Attorney’s office can be held vicariously liable for failing to properly train its prosecutors based on a single incident in which prosecutors suppressed evidence favorable to the defendant.

According to the Petitioners, Harry Connick and other prosecutors (collectively “Connick”), a district attorney’s allegedly deficient Brady training cannot meet the heightened fault and causation requirements for failure-to-train liability without a history of similar violations. Connick claims that a district attorney generally cannot be deliberately indifferent for failing to train prosecutors, because a district attorney reasonably relies on his prosecutors’ education and ethics to assess Brady obligations. The National League of Cities and other groups agree, arguing that holding the city liable for a failure to train based on a single Brady act requires cities to presume that their employees will intentionally break the law. They assert that, without notice to the contrary, Connick was entitled to presume that the attorneys would behave ethically and it would be unfair to hold him liable for failing to train his employees on what they should already have known.

The Respondent, John Thompson, counters that district attorneys should not receive immunity for the actions of their employees just because attorneys graduate law school. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) and the American Civil Liberties Union agree with Thompson, describing Brady rules as “complex” and “hardly intuitive.” According to the NACDL, criminal prosecutors are specialists who must receive special training to comply with their constitutional, statutory, and ethical requirements beyond their law school classes.

In support of Connick, the National District Attorneys Association and the California District Attorneys Association (“Attorneys Associations”) caution that lowering the standards of fault and causation required to prove municipal liability in failure-to-train cases to an essentially “de facto respondeat superior” liability will create a slippery slope towards exposing municipalities to a flood of litigation. The Attorney Associations warn that relaxing the standards would permit liability against a prosecutor’s office for almost any reversal of a conviction based on prosecutorial error, no matter how slight, if better training or supervision might have prevented the error. The Attorneys Associations fear that this lower standard, favored by Thompson, would lead to a severe strain on state and local budgets and in turn lead to cutbacks on the work that District Attorney’s offices can undertake. Even unsuccessful suits for failure-to-train liability based on a single incident will eat away at resources through substantial defense costs.

Thompson argues that relieving Connick of failure-to-train liability for a single Brady violation would set a dangerous precedent, because the only way a municipality could face liability would be after district attorney employees injured multiple individuals. According to the NACDL and Former Federal Civil Rights Officials and Prosecutors (“Former Officials”), this problem of limited municipal liability is compounded by the fact that Brady violations occur in secret, whether intentional or inadvertent, and are rarely discovered. As a result, the Former Officials believe that allowing “one free Brady violation” before holding a municipality liable would, in reality, permit prosecutors to get away with an indefinite number of undiscovered violations. The Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and other groups add that the post-trial lack of witness availability to and counsel seeking evidence for the defense would compound difficulty in discovering Brady violations. Additionally, Thompson does not fear the risk of a drastic increase in failure-to-train municipal liability cases. The NACDL sides with Thompson, dismissing the slippery slope argument for reasons such as the difficulty in uncovering Brady violations.

The Supreme Court’s decision will determine to what extent a district attorney’s office is responsible for a single misdeed of its prosecutors.

Analysis 

The Supreme Court will determine whether a District Attorney’s office can be held vicariously liable for failing to properly train its prosecutors based on a single incident in which prosecutors suppressed evidence favorable to the defendant. 

According to the Petitioners, Harry Connick and other prosecutors (collectively “Connick”), a district attorney’s allegedly deficient Brady training cannot meet the heightened fault and causation requirements for failure-to-train liability without a history of similar violations.  Connick claims that a district attorney generally cannot be deliberately indifferent for failing to train prosecutors, because a district attorney reasonably relies on his prosecutors’ education and ethics to assess Brady obligations.   The National League of Cities and other groups agree, arguing that holding the city liable for a failure to train based on a single Brady act requires cities to presume that their employees will intentionally break the law.  They assert that, without notice to the contrary, Connick was entitled to presume that the attorneys would behave ethically and it would be unfair to hold him liable for failing to train his employees on what they should already have known. 

The Respondent, John Thompson, counters that district attorneys should not receive immunity for the actions of their employees just because attorneys graduate law school.  The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) and the American Civil Liberties Union agree with Thompson, describing Brady rules as “complex” and “hardly intuitive.”  According to the NACDL, criminal prosecutors are specialists who must receive special training to comply with their constitutional, statutory, and ethical requirements beyond their law school classes. 

In support of Connick, the National District Attorneys Association and the California District Attorneys Association (“Attorneys Associations”) caution that lowering the standards of fault and causation required to prove municipal liability in failure-to-train cases to an essentially “de facto respondeat superior” liability will create a slippery slope towards exposing municipalities to a flood of litigation.  The Attorney Associations warn that relaxing the standards would permit liability against a prosecutor’s office for almost any reversal of a conviction based on prosecutorial error, no matter how slight, if better training or supervision might have prevented the error.  The Attorneys Associations fear that this lower standard, favored by Thompson, would lead to a severe strain on state and local budgets and in turn lead to cutbacks on the work that District Attorney’s offices can undertake.  Even unsuccessful suits for failure-to-train liability based on a single incident will eat away at resources through substantial defense costs. 

Thompson argues that relieving Connick of failure-to-train liability for a single Brady violation would set a dangerous precedent, because the only way a municipality could face liability would be after district attorney employees injured multiple individuals.  According to the NACDL and Former Federal Civil Rights Officials and Prosecutors (“Former Officials”), this problem of limited municipal liability is compounded by the fact that Brady violations occur in secret, whether intentional or inadvertent, and are rarely discovered.   As a result, the Former Officials believe that allowing “one free Brady violation” before holding a municipality liable would, in reality, permit prosecutors to get away with an indefinite number of undiscovered violations.  The Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and other groups add that the post-trial lack of witness availability to and counsel seeking evidence for the defense would compound difficulty in discovering Brady violations.  Additionally, Thompson does not fear the risk of a drastic increase in failure-to-train municipal liability cases.  The NACDL sides with Thompson, dismissing the slippery slope argument for reasons such as the difficulty in uncovering Brady violations. 

The Supreme Court’s decision will determine to what extent a district attorney’s office is responsible for a single misdeed of its prosecutors.

Discussion 

The Supreme Court will determine whether a District Attorney’s office can be held vicariously liable for failing to properly train its prosecutors based on a single incident in which prosecutors suppressed evidence favorable to the defendant. 

According to the Petitioners, Harry Connick and other prosecutors (collectively “Connick”), a district attorney’s allegedly deficient Brady training cannot meet the heightened fault and causation requirements for failure-to-train liability without a history of similar violations.  Connick claims that a district attorney generally cannot be deliberately indifferent for failing to train prosecutors, because a district attorney reasonably relies on his prosecutors’ education and ethics to assess Brady obligations.   The National League of Cities and other groups agree, arguing that holding the city liable for a failure to train based on a single Brady act requires cities to presume that their employees will intentionally break the law.  They assert that, without notice to the contrary, Connick was entitled to presume that the attorneys would behave ethically and it would be unfair to hold him liable for failing to train his employees on what they should already have known. 

The Respondent, John Thompson, counters that district attorneys should not receive immunity for the actions of their employees just because attorneys graduate law school.  The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) and the American Civil Liberties Union agree with Thompson, describing Brady rules as “complex” and “hardly intuitive.”  According to the NACDL, criminal prosecutors are specialists who must receive special training to comply with their constitutional, statutory, and ethical requirements beyond their law school classes. 

In support of Connick, the National District Attorneys Association and the California District Attorneys Association (“Attorneys Associations”) caution that lowering the standards of fault and causation required to prove municipal liability in failure-to-train cases to an essentially “de facto respondeat superior” liability will create a slippery slope towards exposing municipalities to a flood of litigation.  The Attorney Associations warn that relaxing the standards would permit liability against a prosecutor’s office for almost any reversal of a conviction based on prosecutorial error, no matter how slight, if better training or supervision might have prevented the error.  The Attorneys Associations fear that this lower standard, favored by Thompson, would lead to a severe strain on state and local budgets and in turn lead to cutbacks on the work that District Attorney’s offices can undertake.  Even unsuccessful suits for failure-to-train liability based on a single incident will eat away at resources through substantial defense costs. 

Thompson argues that relieving Connick of failure-to-train liability for a single Brady violation would set a dangerous precedent, because the only way a municipality could face liability would be after district attorney employees injured multiple individuals.  According to the NACDL and Former Federal Civil Rights Officials and Prosecutors (“Former Officials”), this problem of limited municipal liability is compounded by the fact that Brady violations occur in secret, whether intentional or inadvertent, and are rarely discovered.   As a result, the Former Officials believe that allowing “one free Brady violation” before holding a municipality liable would, in reality, permit prosecutors to get away with an indefinite number of undiscovered violations.  The Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and other groups add that the post-trial lack of witness availability to and counsel seeking evidence for the defense would compound difficulty in discovering Brady violations.  Additionally, Thompson does not fear the risk of a drastic increase in failure-to-train municipal liability cases.  The NACDL sides with Thompson, dismissing the slippery slope argument for reasons such as the difficulty in uncovering Brady violations. 

The Supreme Court’s decision will determine to what extent a district attorney’s office is responsible for a single misdeed of its prosecutors.

Conclusion 

In Connick v. Thompson, the Supreme Court will decide whether a single failure by prosecutors to provide exculpatory evidence to a defendant is sufficient to establish failure-to-train liability against a District Attorney’s office. Connick argues that a finding of liability for failing to train his employees, when he had no notice that such training was necessary, would hold him vicariously liable despite the strict fault and causation requirements of Section1983. Thompson, however, argues that the need for training was so obvious based on the complexity of Brady requirements that the lack of a preexisting pattern of violations should not immunize Connick from failure-to-train liability. This case will have an effect on the amount of proof required by a plaintiff in a failure-to-train case, the liability of a municipality for a single unauthorized action by an employee, and the extent of prosecutorial immunity in a Section1983 setting.

Edited by 

Acknowledgments 

Additional Resources 

· Wex: Brady Rule

· Law.com, Tony Mauro: Clement Lines Up Ex-Prosecutors, Seeks Argument Time in Misconduct Case (Aug. 25, 2010)

· New Orleans Times-Picayune, Katy Reckdahl: Appeals Court Upholds $14 Million Judgment Against Orleans DA Office (Dec. 20, 2008)