Briscoe v. LaHue

In Briscoe v. La Hue, 460 U.S. 325, 103 S.Ct. 1108, 75 L.Ed.2d 96 (1983), the Supreme Court held that a witness has absolute immunity from Sec. 1983 liability based on the substance of his trial testimony. The Court, however, specifically declined to decide whether such absolute immunity extends to testimony in pretrial proceedings such as testimony before the grand jury. 460 U.S. at 328 n. 5, 103 S.Ct. at 1112 n. 5, 75 L.Ed.2d at 103 n. 5. The foundation of Briscoe is part history and part policy. Initially, the Court observes that, historically, the "immunity of ... witnesses from subsequent damages liability for their testimony in judicial proceedings was well established in English common law." 460 U.S. at 330-31, 103 S.Ct. at 1113, 75 L.Ed.2d at 105. The Court then delves into the policy that informs this common law rule of absolute immunity. The first policy consideration is the minimization of witness intimidation which might otherwise discourage witnesses from testifying. Id. at 333. Second, once witnesses do testify, the absolute immunity enhances reliability because those who testify will be less likely to distort their testimony in favor of a future plaintiff in a civil suit for damages. Id. The thread that unites the historical and policy foundations of Briscoe is the preservation of the judicial process. Id. at 334-35, 103 S.Ct. at 1115, 75 L.Ed.2d at 107. In Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325 , 326 (1983), the Supreme Court held that government officials who testify at criminal trials are absolutely immune from damages liability based on their testimony. The Court explained that absolute immunity for testimony in judicial proceedings had been "well established" at common law before the enactment of 42 U.S.C. 1983 to prevent witnesses from engaging in "self-censorship" by refusing to testify or, after taking the stand, by distorting their testimony to reduce the possibility of subsequent liability. Id. at 330-33. Granting immunity to official witnesses also prevents interference with the performance of their public duties by avoiding costly and time-consuming litigation. Id. at 343-44.