Court: Qualified Immunity Protects District Attorney Who Lied To State Legislators About A Wrongfully-Convicted Man
from the QI-is-a-garbage-doctrine-that-only-protects-garbage-gov't-employees dept
Qualified immunity has taken the court system as far away from justice as any one doctrine can. Rights can be freely abused so long as the abuser does it in a novel way or can mumble something about “feared for my safety” while under oath. For the most part, it just sucks to be an average citizen whose rights have been violated. Unless you can show a court held this specific violation — under very specific circumstances — to be unlawful, you’re stuck with zero recourse for obvious wrong perpetrated by the government.
It’s not just abusive cops that benefit from qualified immunity. It’s also vindictive district attorneys, like the one in a recent case [PDF] reviewed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. A man falsely accused of kidnapping and rape spent seven years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit before being exonerated by a DNA test. The results of this test were given to district attorney Spencer Lawton, who confirmed the results. The conviction was vacated and the state wisely decided not to take another prosecutorial pass at the falsely accused man.
So far, so good, except for the seven years of freedom wrongfully taken from Douglas Echols. When lawmakers introduced a bill offering compensation for Echol’s wrongful imprisonment, Spencer Lawton decided to start lying.
Four years later, after the Georgia Claims Advisory Board recommended compensation for Echols, a legislator in the Georgia General Assembly introduced a bill to compensate him with $1.6 million for his wrongful convictions. But before the General Assembly voted on the bill, Lawton sent a letter and memorandum to several legislators opposing Echols’s compensation…
Lawton also told the legislators not to presume Echols innocent of kidnapping and rape because the vacatur of his convictions did not establish his innocence. Lawton urged the legislators not to compensate Echols unless he proved his innocence. And Lawton told the legislators that Echols remained under indictment for kidnapping and rape even though the indictment had been dismissed four years earlier when the state entered a nolle prosequi on the charges.
This lie — specifically claiming Echols remained accused of two felonies — was libel per se. Echols sued Lawton for violating his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The First Amendment claim alleged retaliation by Lawton for Echols’ protected speech, namely advocating for a bill that would have compensated him for the seven years he spent in prison. The lower court said DA Lawton was entitled to qualified immunity. After review, the 11th Circuit, unfortunately, says the same thing:
Although we conclude that Echols’s complaint states a valid claim of retaliation under the First Amendment, we agree with the district court that Lawton enjoys qualified immunity because Echols’s right was not clearly established when Lawton violated it. We affirm.
Since the claim Lawton falsely made was libel per se, it should have been easier for Echols to clear this bar. The appeals court agrees wholeheartedly with this assertion. The defamation of Echols by the district attorney was made with actual malice, since it was the DA himself who verified the DNA test results and decided not to retry the case. Lawton knew no criminal charges were pending against Echols but told state legislators the exact opposite. Somehow, this petty bullshit Lawton performed for seemingly no other reason than to prevent someone else (i.e., taxpayers) from paying Echols for the years he spent wrongly imprisoned was not clearly established enough for the 11th Circuit to find in favor of the plaintiff.
Although Lawton clearly would have had fair notice that his alleged writing constituted libel per se under state tort law, he would not have understood that his alleged libel would have violated the First Amendment. No controlling precedent put Lawton’s alleged violation beyond debate.
In essence, state officials were free to libel former inmates in order to deter them from exercising their First Amendment rights up until the moment this opinion was published. Even though the court says Lawton had “fair notice,” it still gives him a pass for engaging in retaliatory defamation. This isn’t mitigated at all by the court’s “we wish we could but our hands our tied” sentiments offered as a consolation prize to a man who spent seven years in jail for a crime someone else committed.
[W]e too condemn Lawton’s alleged conduct. But the Supreme Court has long ruled that qualified immunity protects a badly behaving official unless he had fair notice that his conduct would violate the Constitution…
Great. The court condemns it but refuses to punish it. The concurring opinion is just as uselessly disappointed in the outcome reached, but at least is a bit harsher in its assessment of the lying, defaming DA.
I further agree with the lead opinion’s conclusion that clear Supreme Court precedent prevents Echols from invoking the rubric of substantive due process as a basis to hold Lawton accountable for a First Amendment violation. But for this binding precedent, I would have concluded that Lawton’s statement “shocks the conscience.” An official’s conduct most likely shocks the conscience—and thus violates an individual’s substantive-due-process rights—if the conduct was “intended to injure in some way unjustifiable by any government interest.” Davis v. Carter, 555 F.3d 979, 982 (11th Cir. 2009) (emphasis added) (citation omitted).
As applied to the present case, there can be no doubt that Lawton’s false statement to the Georgia legislature that Echols was still under indictment for kidnapping and rape was intended to injure Echols. This leaves the question of what possible governmental interest justified Lawton in making that libelous statement. I can think of none. Nor has any such justification been articulated by either Lawton or the district court. I suggest that this total silence is due to the fact that no such justification exists.
I guess we’ll have to settle for being happy the next time a DA defames a wrongly accused prisoner while speaking to legislators about possible reparations in the Eleventh Circuit, the court will finally have some precedent on hand to punish state actors for adding literal insults to sustained injuries.