Grand jury witnesses are entitled to immunity.
The plaintiff sent anonymous faxes to several recipients, including the management of a hospital in Albany, Georgia, criticizing the hospital’s management and activities. The local district attorney’s office and its chief investigator launched a criminal investigation of the plaintiff in this case.
The investigator testified before a grand jury, which indicted the plaintiff for aggravated assault, burglary, and making harassing telephone calls. The indictment charged the plaintiff with assaulting a hospital physician after illegally entering his home. When the plaintiff challenged the indictment, it was dismissed.
A few months later, the investigator once again testified before a grand jury and the plaintiff was once again indicted for assault and making harassing telephone calls. At this grand jury hearing, both the investigator and the plaintiff testified. Once again, when the plaintiff challenged the indictment, it was dismissed.
While the second indictment was pending, the investigator appeared before a grand jury for a third time. Once again, an indictment was issued, charging the plaintiff with assault and making harassing telephone calls. This third indictment was also dismissed.
The plaintiff then brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, alleging violation of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because the investigator had conspired to present and did present false testimony to the grand jury. The investigator responded with a motion to dismiss because he was entitled to absolute immunity for his testimony to the grand jury. The district court denied the motion to dismiss.
The investigator then appealed to the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the district court’s decision. The plaintiff then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously affirmed the appeals court’s decision. In reaching its decision, the court pointed out the following:
- At common law, trial witnesses enjoyed a limited form of absolute immunity for statements made during a judicial proceeding. They had complete immunity from slander and libel claims, even if the statements were maliciously false.
- In Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325 (1983), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a defendant sued under § 1983 had broader protection—that they were cloaked with absolute immunity for any claim based on witness testimony. The claims of the individual must yield to the dictates of public policy.
- Without absolute immunity for witnesses, the court’s truth-seeking process would be impaired because witnesses might be reluctant to come forward to testify. And even if the witnesses took the stand, they might be inclined to shade testimony because of fear of subsequent lawsuits against them.
The court concluded that the factors that justify absolute immunity for trial witnesses apply with equal force to grand jury witnesses. See Rehberg v. Paul, decided April 2, 2012.