Thursday, January 15, 2015

Police lies can support Section 1983 lawsuit

In 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously said that you cannot sue police officers for committing perjury during Grand Jury proceedings. The Rehberg case may have seemed insignificant three years ago, but nowadays, with increased attention on Grand Juries, my guess is that the public would be alarmed to learn that the police can get away with lying under oath during these proceedings without fear of civil liability.

The case is Coggins v. Buonora, decided on January 13. In this case, the plaintiff alleges that the police officers knowingly falsified and omitted material facts from police reports and lied to the district attorney and the Grand Jury, resulting in the plaintiff's malicious prosecution. Under Rehberg, can plaintiff proceed with his case?

He can. The Second Circuit (Wesley, Hall and Cabranes) noted that the Supreme Court in Rehberg gave officers absolute immunity for their Grand Jury testimony. This protects the sanctity of the Grand Jury process. But something you should know about Supreme Court rulings: they can be distinguished. My facts are not your facts. What drove the decision in the Supreme Court may not drive another case. The Coggins case is another case.

The facts here are pretty jarring. When he saw an officer reach for his gun, plaintiff ran away when the police approached him. Officer Buonora arrived on the scene, shouting,"shoot him in the back." The police told the DA they heard a metal noise while chasing plaintiff, and that they found a gun at the scene. After the police falsified their reports and lied to the Grand Jury, plaintiff was indicted for various crimes. The charges were dropped when one officer was found to have perjured himself.

The Court of Appeals allows this case to proceed. The case is not just about Grand Jury perjury. It's also about falsified police records and lies to the DA. Rehberg says you cannot sue over the perjury, but the Second Circuit notes that the Supreme Court did not rule out a lawsuit against the officers for the other falsehoods, even if they had some tangential relationship to the Grand Jury process. Rehberg is contained, and the case can proceed to discovery.

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