‘Absolute Immunity’ Even Shields Placement On Brady List For Political Reasons

Written on 08/06/2022
Will Aitchison

A group of nine Pierce County, Washington, Sheriff’s Department law enforcement officers who were assigned to the Department’s Special Investigation Unit (SIU) sued Deputy Prosecuting Attorneys James Schacht and Fred Wist, former Sheriff Paul Pastor, Acting Sheriff Brent Bom­kamp, and Pierce County, claiming that they were wrongly placed on the local Brady list by Schacht and Wist. The deputies contended that the real reason for their designation on the Brady list had nothing to do with their work and everything to do with their support for a competing candidate for sheriff and their criticism of the Prosecutor’s Office.

The dispute started with an in­vestigation by Schacht and Wist into allegations the SIU members had planted and misappropriated drugs. In the months following Schacht’s original inquiry, the Sheriff’s De­partment “shut down” SIU on two occasions, corresponding with news articles published in the local paper. On June 22, 2020, Schacht notified all nine deputies that they were officially placed on the Brady list.

Things escalated in the ensuing months. In response to yet another article, Pierce County Prosecuting At­torney Mary Robnett sent an email to Bomkamp, in which she stated: “While we were aware that this article was coming, seeing today the actual words and arguments used by these deputies through their attorney makes clear that my office must decline working with SIU personnel who are on our Brady list for the time being.” Bomkamp shut down SIU operations a second time and all SIU deputies were reassigned.

Citing the doctrine of prosecutori­al immunity, a federal court dismissed the deputies’ claims that they were wrongly placed on the Brady list. The Court found that even if the prosecu­tors placed the deputies on the Brady list as an act of pure political retali­ation, the prosecutors were shielded from a lawsuit by “absolute immunity.”

As the Court described, “Prosecu­tors have a duty to provide favorable evidence to the defense about witness credibility when such information is known to a state actor, even if it is not known to the prosecutor. In other words, prosecutors have an affirmative duty to become aware of evidence fa­vorable to the defense as one of their necessary functions in our judicial system. Investigating and maintaining Brady information, including infor­mation from and about police officers who may serve as state witnesses, is a necessary element of that duty, which means that prosecutorial immunity must also apply to those functions.

“Indeed, it is well-established law that prosecutorial immunity applies to administrative and management duties, like information management, that are directly connected with the conduct of a trial. Decisions about whether to investigate and how to keep track of potential Brady infor­mation fits logically into this camp, a function that, though technically administrative, is intimately related to a prosecutor’s obligations as an officer of the court. As such, courts in this circuit addressing the issue of Brady Lists have found that prosecutors who made the decision to place officers on those lists and communicated those decisions were entitled to absolute immunity.

“Plaintiffs argue that Schacht and Wist engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by acting with hostile animus. However, this argument fails because, as stated above, the relevant inquiry is not whether the prosecutor’s complained of conduct amounted to misconduct, but whether it was a function of their duties as an officer of the court. If so, prosecutors have immunity regardless of whether the actions were appropriate.”

Adamson v. Pierce County, 2022 WL 1667016 (W.D. Wash. 2022).

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