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Law School Case Brief

Buckley v. Fitzsimmons - 509 U.S. 259, 113 S. Ct. 2606 (1993)


A prosecutor's administrative duties and those investigatory functions that do not relate to an advocate's preparation for the initiation of a prosecution or for judicial proceedings are not entitled to absolute immunity.


Petitioner Stephen Buckley brought an action under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, which sought damages from respondent prosecutors for allegedly fabricating evidence during the preliminary investigation of a highly publicized rape and murder in Illinois and making false statements at a press conference announcing the return of an indictment against Buckley. He claimed that when three separate lab studies failed to make a reliable connection between a bootprint at the murder site and his boots, the prosecutors obtained a positive identification from one Louise Robbins, an anthropologist in North Carolina who was allegedly well known for her willingness to fabricate unreliable expert testimony.  Thereafter, the prosecutors convened a grand jury for the sole purpose of investigating the murder, and 10 months later, respondent Fitzsimmons, the State's Attorney, announced the indictment at the news conference. Buckley was arrested and, unable to meet the bond, was held in jail. Robbins provided the principal evidence against him at trial, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict. When Robbins died before Buckley's retrial, all charges were dropped and he was released after three years of incarceration. In the § 1983 action, the District Court held that respondent prosecutors were entitled to absolute immunity for the fabricated evidence claim but not for the press conference claim. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that respondent prosecutors had absolute immunity because the injuries suffered by Buckley occurred during criminal proceedings. After its judgment was vacated and remanded, the Seventh Circuit again ruled that the prosecutors were entitled to absolute immunity. The United States Supreme Court granted Buckley's petition for certiorari review.


Were the prosecutors entitled to absolute immunity?




The Court held that respondents were not entitled to absolute immunity. According to the Court, in endeavoring to determine whether the bootprint had been made by Buckley, respondents were acting not as advocates for the State, but as investigators searching for clues and corroboration that might give them probable cause to recommend an arrest. Such activities were not immune from liability at common law. If performed by police officers and detectives, such actions would be entitled to only qualified immunity; the same immunity applied to prosecutors performing those actions. The Court further held that Fitzsommons’ statements to the media were also not entitled to absolute immunity. According to the Court, there was no common-law immunity for prosecutor's out-of-court statements to the press.The appellate court's judgment, which found that prosecutors had absolute immunity in Buckley's civil rights action, was reversed, and the case was remanded.

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