Jackson V. Seewald: Immunity For Prosecutors? Not So Fast…

In a recent case in Manhattan Federal court, a New York City attorney named Stuart Jackson sued several employees of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office who investigated a dispute between between Mr. Jackson, one of his client’s, and the client’s ex-wife. The ex-wife claimed Mr. Jackson and his client were harassing her about visitation rights to see the client’s grandchildren. Attorneys and investigators from the District Attorney’s Office met with the ex-wife and arranged for a secretly recorded phone call between the three, during which Mr. Jackson and his client were told to leave the ex-wife alone. After this phone call, the District Attorney’s Office charged Mr. Jackson with grand larceny and attempted grand larceny, claiming he demanded $5.5 million for his client to give up visitation rights and another $5.5 million to ensure his client would not contact his ex-wife again.

Mr. Jackson was acquitted of all charges at trial, and he sued the prosecutors and investigators involved in his case for, among other things, false arrest, malicious prosecution, conspiracy to deprive him of his constitutional rights, and abuse of process. Two weeks ago, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lewis Kaplan issued his recommendations for the defendants’ motions to dismiss the lawsuit Mr. Jackson filed against them.

Judge Kaplan determined that the case against the investigators should be thrown out of court—but an important argument made by the prosecutors involved in the case did not convince him. Specifically, the prosecutors argued that they are entitled to what is called “absolute immunity,” which makes them immune from any lawsuits arising from any of their actions as advocates of the public interest. Judge Kaplan determined, however, that before and during their meeting with Mr. Jackson and his client, the prosecutors were acting as investigators, not advocates. This means they are not entitled to absolute immunity for their conduct during that time. Instead, they are protected by what is called “qualified immunity,” which only protects them if their conduct did not violate a clearly established constitutional right.

In other words, if the court determines that the prosecutors did indeed violate one or more of Mr. Jackson’s clearly established constitutional rights before or during their meeting—for example, by subjecting him to false arrest, depriving him of due process, fabricating evidence, or illegally withholding evidence that is favorable to him—then Mr. Jackson can be awarded monetary damages.

Judge Kaplan’s decision is important because it makes clear that despite laws protecting them from lawsuits, under certain circumstances, prosecutors can be held accountable by the courts for violating an individual’s civil rights. If you think you may be a victim of police or prosecutorial misconduct, it is important that you speak with an experienced and knowledgeable attorney who can help you fight for the damages you deserve.