Supreme Court of the United States
Connick v. Thompson,
Decided March 29, 2011 — 563 U.S. 51
Justice THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office now concedes that, in prosecuting respondent John Thompson for attempted armed robbery, prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that should have been turned over to the defense under Brady v. Maryland. Thompson was convicted. Because of that conviction Thompson elected not to testify in his own defense in his later trial for murder, and he was again convicted. Thompson spent 18 years in prison, including 14 years on death row. One month before Thompson’s scheduled execution, his investigator discovered the undisclosed evidence from his armed robbery trial. The reviewing court determined that the evidence was exculpatory, and both of Thompson’s convictions were vacated.
After his release from prison, Thompson sued petitioner Harry Connick, in his official capacity as the Orleans Parish District Attorney, for damages. Thompson alleged that Connick had failed to train his prosecutors adequately about their duty to produce exculpatory evidence and that the lack of training had caused the nondisclosure in Thompson’s robbery case. The jury awarded Thompson $14 million, and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed by an evenly divided en banc court. We granted certiorari to decide whether a district attorney’s office may be held liable under § 1983 for failure to train based on a single Brady violation. We hold that it cannot.
In early 1985, John Thompson was charged with the murder of Raymond T. Liuzza, Jr. in New Orleans. Publicity following the murder charge led the victims of an unrelated armed robbery to identify Thompson as their attacker. The district attorney charged Thompson with attempted armed robbery.
As part of the robbery investigation, a crime scene technician took from one of the victims’ pants a swatch of fabric stained with the robber’s blood. Approximately one week before Thompson’s armed robbery trial, the swatch was sent to the crime laboratory. Two days before the trial, assistant district attorney Bruce Whittaker received the crime lab’s report, which stated that the perpetrator had blood type B. There is no evidence that the prosecutors ever had Thompson’s blood tested or that they knew what his blood type was. Whittaker claimed he placed the report on assistant district attorney James Williams’ desk, but Williams denied seeing it. The report was never disclosed to Thompson’s counsel.
Williams tried the armed robbery case with assistant district attorney Gerry Deegan. On the first day of trial, Deegan checked all of the physical evidence in the case out of the police property room, including the blood-stained swatch. Deegan then checked all of the evidence but the swatch into the courthouse property room. The prosecutors did not mention the swatch or the crime lab report at trial, and the jury convicted Thompson of attempted armed robbery.
A few weeks later, Williams and special prosecutor Eric Dubelier tried Thompson for the Liuzza murder. Because of the armed robbery conviction, Thompson chose not to testify in his own defense. He was convicted and sentenced to death. In the 14 years following Thompson’s murder conviction, state and federal courts reviewed and denied his challenges to the conviction and sentence. The State scheduled Thompson’s execution for May 20, 1999.
In late April 1999, Thompson’s private investigator discovered the crime lab report from the armed robbery investigation in the files of the New Orleans Police Crime Laboratory. Thompson was tested and found to have blood type O, proving that the blood on the swatch was not his. Thompson’s attorneys presented this evidence to the district attorney’s office, which, in turn, moved to stay the execution and vacate Thompson’s armed robbery conviction. The Louisiana Court of Appeals then reversed Thompson’s murder conviction, concluding that the armed robbery conviction unconstitutionally deprived Thompson of his right to testify in his own defense at the murder trial. In 2003, the district attorney’s office retried Thompson for Liuzza’s murder. The jury found him not guilty.
Thompson then brought this action against the district attorney’s office, Connick, Williams, and others, alleging that their conduct caused him to be wrongfully convicted, incarcerated for 18 years, and nearly executed. The only claim that proceeded to trial was Thompson’s claim under § 1983 that the district attorney’s office had violated Brady by failing to disclose the crime lab report in his armed robbery trial. Thompson alleged liability under two theories: (1) the Brady violation was caused by an unconstitutional policy of the district attorney’s office; and (2) the violation was caused by Connick’s deliberate indifference to an obvious need to train the prosecutors in his office in order to avoid such constitutional violations.
Before trial, Connick conceded that the failure to produce the crime lab report constituted a Brady violation. Accordingly, the District Court instructed the jury that the “only issue” was whether the nondisclosure was caused by either a policy, practice, or custom of the district attorney’s office or a deliberately indifferent failure to train the office’s prosecutors.
Although no prosecutor remembered any specific training session regarding Brady prior to 1985, it was undisputed at trial that the prosecutors were familiar with the general Brady requirement that the State disclose to the defense evidence in its possession that is favorable to the accused. Prosecutors testified that office policy was to turn crime lab reports and other scientific evidence over to the defense. They also testified that, after the discovery of the undisclosed crime lab report in 1999, prosecutors disagreed about whether it had to be disclosed under Brady absent knowledge of Thompson’s blood type.
The jury rejected Thompson’s claim that an unconstitutional office policy caused the Brady violation, but found the district attorney’s office liable for failing to train the prosecutors. The jury awarded Thompson $14 million in damages, and the District Court added more than $1 million in attorney’s fees and costs.
After the verdict, Connick renewed his objection—which he had raised on summary judgment—that he could not have been deliberately indifferent to an obvious need for more or different Brady training because there was no evidence that he was aware of a pattern of similar Brady violations. The District Court rejected this argument.
A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Court of Appeals sitting en banc vacated the panel opinion, granted rehearing, and divided evenly, thereby affirming the District Court. We granted certiorari.
The Brady violation conceded in this case occurred when one or more of the four prosecutors involved with Thompson’s armed robbery prosecution failed to disclose the crime lab report to Thompson’s counsel. Under Thompson’s failure-to-train theory, he bore the burden of proving both (1) that Connick, the policymaker for the district attorney’s office, was deliberately indifferent to the need to train the prosecutors about their Brady disclosure obligation with respect to evidence of this type and (2) that the lack of training actually caused the Brady violation in this case. Connick argues that he was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Thompson did not prove that he was on actual or constructive notice of, and therefore deliberately indifferent to, a need for more or different Brady training. We agree.
Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides in relevant part:
“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State … subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress ….”
A municipality or other local government may be liable under this section if the governmental body itself “subjects” a person to a deprivation of rights or “causes” a person “to be subjected” to such deprivation. But, under § 1983, local governments are responsible only for “their own illegal acts.” They are not vicariously liable under § 1983 for their employees’ actions.
Plaintiffs who seek to impose liability on local governments under § 1983 must prove that “action pursuant to official municipal policy” caused their injury. Official municipal policy includes the decisions of a government’s lawmakers, the acts of its policymaking officials, and practices so persistent and widespread as to practically have the force of law. These are “action[s] for which the municipality is actually responsible.”
In limited circumstances, a local government’s decision not to train certain employees about their legal duty to avoid violating citizens’ rights may rise to the level of an official government policy for purposes of § 1983. A municipality’s culpability for a deprivation of rights is at its most tenuous where a claim turns on a failure to train. To satisfy the statute, a municipality’s failure to train its employees in a relevant respect must amount to “deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the [untrained employees] come into contact.” Only then “can such a shortcoming be properly thought of as a city ‘policy or custom’ that is actionable under § 1983.”
“‘[D]eliberate indifference’ is a stringent standard of fault, requiring proof that a municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action.” Thus, when city policymakers are on actual or constructive notice that a particular omission in their training program causes city employees to violate citizens’ constitutional rights, the city may be deemed deliberately indifferent if the policymakers choose to retain that program. The city’s “policy of inaction” in light of notice that its program will cause constitutional violations “is the functional equivalent of a decision by the city itself to violate the Constitution.” A less stringent standard of fault for a failure-to-train claim “would result in de facto respondeat superior liability on municipalities
Failure to train prosecutors in their Brady obligations does not fall within the narrow range of  single-incident liability. Attorneys are trained in the law and equipped with the tools to interpret and apply legal principles, understand constitutional limits, and exercise legal judgment. Before they may enter the profession and receive a law license, all attorneys must graduate from law school or pass a substantive examination; attorneys in the vast majority of jurisdictions must do both.
In addition, attorneys in all jurisdictions must satisfy character and fitness standards to receive a law license and are personally subject to an ethical regime designed to reinforce the profession’s standards. An attorney who violates his or her ethical obligations is subject to professional discipline, including sanctions, suspension, and disbarment.
In light of this regime of legal training and professional responsibility, recurring constitutional violations are not the “obvious consequence” of failing to provide prosecutors with formal in-house training about how to obey the law. Prosecutors are not only equipped but are also ethically bound to know what Brady entails and to perform legal research when they are uncertain. A district attorney is entitled to rely on prosecutors’ professional training and ethical obligations in the absence of specific reason, such as a pattern of violations, to believe that those tools are insufficient to prevent future constitutional violations in “the usual and recurring situations with which [the prosecutors] must deal.” A licensed attorney making legal judgments, in his capacity as a prosecutor, about Brady material simply does not present the same “highly predictable” constitutional danger as [an] untrained officer.
We do not assume that prosecutors will always make correct Brady decisions or that guidance regarding specific Brady questions would not assist prosecutors. But showing merely that additional training would have been helpful in making difficult decisions does not establish municipal liability. “[P]rov[ing] that an injury or accident could have been avoided if an [employee] had had better or more training, sufficient to equip him to avoid the particular injury-causing conduct” will not suffice.
The District Court and the Court of Appeals panel erroneously believed that Thompson had proved deliberate indifference by showing the “obviousness” of a need for additional training. They based this conclusion on Connick’s awareness that (1) prosecutors would confront Brady issues while at the district attorney’s office; (2) inexperienced prosecutors were expected to understand Brady’s requirements; (3) Brady has gray areas that make for difficult choices; and (4) erroneous decisions regarding Brady evidence would result in constitutional violations. This is insufficient.
It does not follow that, because Brady has gray areas and some Brady decisions are difficult, prosecutors will so obviously make wrong decisions that failing to train them amounts to “a decision by the city itself to violate the Constitution.” To prove deliberate indifference, Thompson needed to show that Connick was on notice that, absent additional specified training, it was “highly predictable” that the prosecutors in his office would be confounded by those gray areas and make incorrect Brady decisions as a result. In fact, Thompson had to show that it was so predictable that failing to train the prosecutors amounted to conscious disregard for defendants’ Brady rights. He did not do so.
We conclude that this case does not fall within the narrow range of “single-incident” liability. The District Court should have granted Connick judgment as a matter of law on the failure-to-train claim because Thompson did not prove a pattern of similar violations that would “establish that the ‘policy of inaction’ [was] the functional equivalent of a decision by the city itself to violate the Constitution.” The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is reversed.
In Brady v. Maryland, this Court held that due process requires the prosecution to turn over evidence favorable to the accused and material to his guilt or punishment. That obligation, the parties have stipulated, was dishonored in this case; consequently, John Thompson spent 18 years in prison, 14 of them isolated on death row, before the truth came to light: He was innocent of the charge of attempted armed robbery, and his subsequent trial on a murder charge, by prosecutorial design, was fundamentally unfair.
The Court holds that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office (District Attorney’s Office or Office) cannot be held liable, in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for the grave injustice Thompson suffered. That is so, the Court tells us, because Thompson has shown only an aberrant Brady violation, not a routine practice of giving short shrift to Brady’s requirements. The evidence presented to the jury that awarded compensation to Thompson, however, points distinctly away from the Court’s assessment. As the trial record in the § 1983 action reveals, the conceded, long-concealed prosecutorial transgressions were neither isolated nor atypical.
From the top down, the evidence showed, members of the District Attorney’s Office, including the District Attorney himself, misperceived Brady’s compass and therefore inadequately attended to their disclosure obligations. Throughout the pretrial and trial proceedings against Thompson, the team of four engaged in prosecuting him for armed robbery and murder hid from the defense and the court exculpatory information Thompson requested and had a constitutional right to receive. The prosecutors did so despite multiple opportunities, spanning nearly two decades, to set the record straight. Based on the prosecutors’ conduct relating to Thompson’s trials, a fact trier could reasonably conclude that inattention to Brady was standard operating procedure at the District Attorney’s Office.
What happened here, the Court’s opinion obscures, was no momentary oversight, no single incident of a lone officer’s misconduct. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of Brady’s disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish. That evidence, I would hold, established persistent, deliberately indifferent conduct for which the District Attorney’s Office bears responsibility under § 1983.
Thompson discovered the prosecutors’ misconduct through a serendipitous series of events. In 1994, nine years after Thompson’s convictions, Deegan, the assistant prosecutor in the armed robbery trial, learned he was terminally ill. Soon thereafter, Deegan confessed to his friend Michael Riehlmann that he had suppressed blood evidence in the armed robbery case. Deegan did not heed Riehlmann’s counsel to reveal what he had done. For five years, Riehlmann, himself a former Orleans Parish prosecutor, kept Deegan’s confession to himself.
On April 16, 1999, the State of Louisiana scheduled Thompson’s execution. In an eleventh-hour effort to save his life, Thompson’s attorneys hired a private investigator. Deep in the crime lab archives, the investigator unearthed a microfiche copy of the lab report identifying the robber’s blood type. The copy showed that the report had been addressed to Whittaker. Thompson’s attorneys contacted Whittaker, who informed Riehlmann that the lab report had been found. Riehlmann thereupon told Whittaker that Deegan “had failed to turn over stuff that might have been exculpatory.” Riehlmann prepared an affidavit describing Deegan’s disclosure “that he had intentionally suppressed blood evidence in the armed robbery trial of John Thompson.”
Thompson’s lawyers presented to the trial court the crime lab report showing that the robber’s blood type was B, and a report identifying Thompson’s blood type as O. This evidence proved Thompson innocent of the robbery. The court immediately stayed Thompson’s execution and commenced proceedings to assess the newly discovered evidence.
Connick sought an abbreviated hearing. A full hearing was unnecessary, he urged, because the Office had confessed error and had moved to dismiss the armed robbery charges. The court insisted on a public hearing. Given “the history of this case,” the court said, it “was not willing to accept the representations that [Connick] and [his] office made [in their motion to dismiss].” After a full day’s hearing, the court vacated Thompson’s attempted armed robbery conviction and dismissed the charges. Before doing so, the court admonished:
“[A]ll day long there have been a number of young Assistant D.A.’s … sitting in this courtroom watching this, and I hope they take home … and take to heart the message that this kind of conduct cannot go on in this Parish if this Criminal Justice System is going to work.”
The District Attorney’s Office then initiated grand jury proceedings against the prosecutors who had withheld the lab report. Connick terminated the grand jury after just one day. He maintained that the lab report would not be Brady material if prosecutors did not know Thompson’s blood type. And he told the investigating prosecutor that the grand jury “w[ould] make [his] job more difficult.” In protest, that prosecutor tendered his resignation.
Thereafter, the Louisiana Court of Appeal reversed Thompson’s murder conviction. The unlawfully procured robbery conviction, the court held, had violated Thompson’s right to testify and thus fully present his defense in the murder trial. The merits of several Brady claims arising out of the murder trial, the court observed, had therefore become “moot.”
Undeterred by his assistants’ disregard of Thompson’s rights, Connick retried him for the Liuzza murder. Thompson’s defense was bolstered by evidence earlier unavailable to him: ten exhibits the prosecution had not disclosed when Thompson was first tried. The newly produced items included police reports describing the assailant in the murder case as having “close cut” hair, the police report recounting Perkins’ meetings with the Liuzza family, audio recordings of those meetings, and a 35-page supplemental police report. After deliberating for only 35 minutes, the jury found Thompson not guilty.
On May 9, 2003, having served more than 18 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, Thompson was released.
On July 16, 2003, Thompson commenced a civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that Connick, other officials of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, and the Office itself, had violated his constitutional rights by wrongfully withholding Brady evidence. Thompson sought to hold Connick and the District Attorney’s Office liable for failure adequately to train prosecutors concerning their Brady obligations. Such liability attaches, I agree with the Court, only when the failure “amount[s] to ‘deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the [untrained employees] come into contact.’” I disagree, however, with the Court’s conclusion that Thompson failed to prove deliberate indifference.
Having weighed all the evidence, the jury in the § 1983 case found for Thompson, concluding that the District Attorney’s Office had been deliberately indifferent to Thompson’s Brady. rights and to the need for training and supervision to safeguard those rights. “Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to [Thompson], as appropriate in light of the verdic[t] rendered by the jury,” I see no cause to upset the District Court’s determination, affirmed by the Fifth Circuit, that “ample evidence … adduced at trial” supported the jury’s verdict.
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In our next chapter, we return to substantive criminal procedure law, examining the right to counsel provided by the Sixth Amendment.