An investigator accused of lying to a grand jury has the same immunity from civil suit as a witness at trial, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.
The civil suit had targeted an investigator for a Georgia district attorney who testified that accountant Charles Rehberg had harassed officials at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. Rehberg claims the investigator lied, and he started the investigation as a favor to the hospital after Rehberg sent a series of faxes criticizing its management. The investigator had testified before three grand juries in a matter of months, resulting in three indictments that were each dismissed.
A Georgia federal judge rejected the defendants' immunity claims, but
the 11th Circuit said they were entitled to dismiss most of Rehberg's
claims. The 40-page decision said that a chief investigator cannot be
liable for allegedly lying to the grand jury, even if he and the
district attorney knew that his testimony was false.
On the conspiracy charges, the court held that the Hodges and Paulk
likewise had immunity from the charge that they conspired to fabricate
and present false evidence to the grand jury. Burke was found to have
immunity for the same reasons against a separate claim.
Since the prosecutors stepped out of the role of advocate to
perform the actual investigation of Rehberg, the court found that they
could not claim absolute immunity. The judges granted them qualified
immunity nonetheless as to the subpoenas because Rehberg waived his
right to privacy by voluntarily sending the information to his Internet
The Supreme Court took up
the case in March 2011 to resolve a circuit conflict regarding the
immunity of a "complaining witness" in a grand jury proceeding.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the unanimous opinion. He said factors justifying absolute immunity for trial witnesses also apply to grand jury witnesses. In both contexts, fear of litigation could make witnesses reluctant to testify. And in both cases, witnesses who lie could be prosecuted for perjury.
"The factors that justify absolute immunity for trial witnesses
apply with equal force to grand jury witnesses," Justice Samuel Alito
wrote for the unanimous court. "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 perjurious testimony. In Briscoe, the court
concluded that the possibility of civil liability was not needed to
deter false testimony at trial because other sanctions - chiefly
prosecution for perjury - provided a sufficient deterrent. Since perjury
before a grand jury, like perjury at trial, is a serious criminal
offense, there is no reason to think that this deterrent is any less
effective in preventing false grand jury testimony.
"Neither is there any reason to distinguish law enforcement witnesses from lay witnesses." Alito also noted that allowing civil actions against grand jury witnesses could subvert grand jury secrecy.
"Allowing §1983 actions against grand jury witnesses would
compromise this vital secrecy," the 17-page decision states. "If the
testimony of witnesses before a grand jury could provide the basis for,
or could be used as evidence supporting, a §1983 claim, the identities
of grand jury witnesses could be discovered by filing a §1983 action and
moving for the disclosure of the transcript of grand jury proceedings.
Especially in cases involving violent criminal organizations or other
subjects who might retaliate against adverse grand jury witnesses, the
threat of such disclosure might seriously undermine the grand jury
Alito pointed out that a contrary ruling could encourage suits designed to discover the identities of grand jury witnesses. “Especially in cases involving violent criminal organizations or other subjects who might retaliate against adverse grand jury witnesses, the threat of such disclosure might seriously undermine the grand jury process,” Alito wrote.
Supreme Court ruling Rehberg v. Paulk: