11/24/2010

David Overhuls

On October 6, 2010, the Supreme Court heard Oral arguments in Connick v. Thompson. After serving 14 years on death row for first-degree murder, John Thompson’s murder conviction was overturned by a Louisiana Court of Appeals because the prosecutors in the case failed to disclose an exculpatory lab report to defense council. Under the failure to train theory, a jury awarded Mr. Thompson $14 million in damages. The Fifth Circuit affirmed this award, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine the question of whether the District Attorney’s office could be liable for failing to train ADAs on Brady rules. 

In the case of Monell v. Department of Social Services, the Supreme Court held that while municipalities may be held liable for their own actions, they are not ordinarily liable for the acts of their employees. However, under City of Canton v. Harris, a municipality may be responsible under the theory of failure to train. In Bryan County v. Brown, the Court stated that a pattern of wrongdoing is necessary to prove fault and causation. The Canton Court has articulated one narrow exception to the pattern requirement- where a municipality failed to train police officers on the use of deadly force after distributing handguns.

The decision of the Supreme Court may produce interesting results. If Connick and the District Attorney’s Office are held liable for this failure to train on Brady, will District Attorney’s offices be responsible for repeating basic criminal law concepts learned by law students early in law school? It is also questionable whether the imposition of liability for failure to train makes sense in a case where an employee acts willfully in withholding evidence. Where the employee acted willfully and deliberately in withholding evidence from defense counsel, it is unlikely that training would have produced a different result. Though it is regretful that Mr. Thompson was imprisoned for 14 years because of the misdeeds of an ADA, holding Connick and the District Attorney’s Office liable would be inappropriate in this case.