Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens recently gave a speech that said that district attorneys’ offices should be held to the same standard as private employers as far as being held liable for the misconduct or illegal actions of employees. According to a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, Stevens said that it was up to state and national lawmakers to create legislation to hold prosecutors liable for misconduct because the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that prosecutors cannot be sued by people who were wrongfully convicted due to misconduct.
The retired justice was specifically spurred to speak by a March decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices voted 5-4 to overturn a jury’s awarding of $14 million to a man who was wrongfully convicted. The man spent 14 years on death row for a murder he did not commit because prosecutors had hidden evidence that would have proven him innocent of the crime. The majority justices said that the district attorney’s office could not be sued because the plaintiff did not prove that the former district attorney had systematically failed in training his employees as a matter of policy.
Stevens said that making the government office of district attorney liable under the same rules as private employers would better ensure that the civil rights of criminal defendants were upheld. This legal doctrine that holds employers liable for employee misconduct is called respondeat superior. Since district attorneys are usually elected, it means that they have an incentive to convict people, but making them liable for the illegal behavior of employees would create a strong incentive to make sure that employees were property trained to follow the law in their work.
Stevens Urges Congress to Crack Down on Prosecutorial Misconduct (The Wall Street Journal)