U.S. Supreme Court

Government Witnesses Who Lie to Grand Juries Are Protected from Civil Suits, Supreme Court Says

An investigator accused of lying to a grand jury has the same immunity from civil suit as a witness at trial, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the unanimous opinion (PDF). He said factors justifying absolute immunity for trial witnesses also apply to grand jury witnesses. In both contexts, fear of litigation could make witnesses reluctant to testify. And in both cases, witnesses who lie could be prosecuted for perjury.

Alito pointed out that a contrary ruling could encourage suits designed to discover the identities of grand jury witnesses. “Especially in cases involving violent criminal organizations or other subjects who might retaliate against adverse grand jury witnesses, the threat of such disclosure might seriously undermine the grand jury process,” Alito wrote.

The civil suit had targeted an investigator for a Georgia district attorney who testified that accountant Charles Rehberg had harassed officials at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. Rehberg claims the investigator lied, and he started the investigation as a favor to the hospital after Rehberg sent a series of faxes criticizing its management. The investigator had testified before three grand juries in a matter of months, resulting in three indictments that were each dismissed.

The case is Rehberg v. Paulk.

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