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Ninth Circuit: County May be Liable for Wrongful Conviction Even if District Attorney Enjoys Absolute Immunity

Ninth Circuit: County May be Liable for Wrongful Conviction Even if District Attorney Enjoys Absolute Immunity


On May 8, 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the County of Los Angeles could be held liable for its failure to establish policies regarding the use of jailhouse informants, when that failure led to the wrongful conviction of Thomas Lee Goldstein, a man with no prior criminal history, who served over two decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

In so holding, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of the county’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. The district court’s ruling, in turn, followed a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court four years earlier, which had held that the Los Angeles County District Attorney enjoyed absolute immunity from suit based on Goldstein’s claims.

Goldstein, a Marine Corps veteran and engineering student, was convicted of a 1979 murder based largely on the perjured testimony of an unreliable jailhouse informant, the aptly named Edward Fink. Although Fink had a history of testifying in other cases in exchange for reduced sentences, no one informed Goldstein’s counsel of Fink’s history or that Fink had lied on the stand when he denied having such a history.

In 1998, Goldstein filed a petition for habeas relief in federal court. After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the district court found the prosecution had failed to disclose impeachment material to Goldstein’s defense counsel and that the error had prejudiced him. Given the option of retrying Goldstein, the state chose to release him instead. He had served 24 years.

Goldstein then filed suit against Los Angeles County and the District Attorney pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that his civil rights had been violated by their failure to create an information system containing potential impeachment material related to informants.

In Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, 555 U.S. 335 (2009), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the District Attorney was absolutely immune from Goldstein’s claims because those claims focused on administrative procedures “directly connected with the conduct of a trial.” [See: PLN, March 2009, p.26].

On remand, the district court entered judgment in favor of the District Attorney, then “reluctantly” granted the county’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.

The Ninth Circuit reversed on appeal, rejecting the county’s argument that the Supreme Court’s decision in Van de Kamp was determinative of the outcome of the case. In so ruling, the appellate court distinguished the role of the District Attorney as a prosecutor – an agent of the state entitled to absolute immunity – from the role of the District Attorney as an administrative policymaker for the county.

Specifically, the Court of Appeals concluded that California district attorneys “act as local policymakers when adopting and implementing internal policies and procedures related to the use of jailhouse informants.” Accordingly, Goldstein’s claims against Los Angeles County could proceed and the case was remanded to the district court.

The Ninth Circuit noted that its conclusion would vary “from state to state” depending on an analysis of underlying state law with respect to whether prosecutors act on behalf of the state or counties, for purposes of determining immunity.

Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt issued a concurring opinion in which he expounded on Edward Fink’s repeated history of providing false informant testimony in exchange for reduced sentences, including in the death penalty case of Thomas Thompson, a California prisoner who was executed in 1998.

The Supreme Court denied Los Angeles County’s petition for writ of certiorari, and this case remains pending before the district court with a trial date scheduled in October 2014. See: Goldstein v. City of Long Beach, 715 F.3d 750 (9th Cir. Cal. 2013), cert. denied.



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Related legal case

Goldstein v. City of Long Beach