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In immunity, court lacks jurisdiction

A prosecutor’s absolute immunity defense cannot be decided without first deciding whether there was probable cause against the plaintiff.

On Nov. 22, the 7th Circuit dismissed a prosecutor’s appeal of a district court’s denial of his immunity defense, explaining, “Because we cannot resolve the absolute immunity question without resolving this factual dispute, we do not have jurisdiction over [the] appeal.”

In 1990, Kathy Morgan was sexually assaulted and murdered in Chicago.

The crimes remained unsolved when Harold Hill was arrested in 1992 on unrelated charges. During interrogation, he confessed to the murder, and was convicted, despite his claims of innocence.

After DNA evidence exonerated him, he brought suit against the detectives who interrogated him and assistant state prosecutor Michael Rogers, alleging that they coerced him into falsely confessing to the crimes in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

Rogers moved for summary judgment, asserting he was entitled to absolute and qualified immunity, but the district court denied the motions.

Rogers appealed, but the 7th Circuit dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction, in an opinion by Judge Ann Claire Williams.

The court noted that the trigger for a prosecutor’s absolute immunity is that he was acting as an advocate for the state rather than as an investigator, citing Smith v. Power, 346 F.3d 740 (7th Cir.2003).

This question, in turn, depends on whether probable cause existed for Hill’s arrest prior to Rogers’ arrival at the police station.

The court concluded, “If Hill confessed to the crimes before Rogers arrived, then the detectives likely did have probable cause to arrest him, which counsels toward a finding that Rogers was acting in a purely prosecutorial role for which he would be entitled to absolute immunity.”

But the court added, “On the other hand, a determination that Hill did not confess until his meeting with Rogers would indicate that Rogers was likely acting in the role of an investigator searching for more evidence, activities to which only the qualified immunity analysis applies.”

Because it was disputed whether Rogers arrived before Hill confessed, the court held the district court could not resolve the issue on summary judgment, and thus, the appellate court lacked jurisdiction.

Similarly, because facts were disputed, the court held it lacked jurisdiction to consider Rogers’ qualified immunity claim, as well.

David Ziemer can be reached at david.ziemer@wislawjournal.com

What the court held

Case: Hill v. Coppleson, No. 09-1878

Issues: Does the court have jurisdiction to review a district court’s denial of a prosecutor’s absolute immunity claim?

Holdings: No. Where facts are disputed, summary judgment can’t be granted, and the Court of Appeals lacks jurisdiction.

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