Third Circuit Abolishes Judicial Immunity For Witnesses

In United States v. Keenan Danan Quinn, 2013 WL 4504647 (3d Cir. August, 2013), the Third Circuit overturned its prior case of Government of the Virgin Islands v. Smith, 615 F. 2d 964 (3d Cir. 1980), wherein it previously held that a defendant was entitled to immunity for his witness if the testimonial evidence was clearly exculpatory and essential to the defense case and the government had no strong interest in withholding use immunity. The Third Circuit's decision in the Quinn case has now eliminated the trial judge's authority to grant judicial immunity.

Appellant Quinn appealed his jury conviction for aiding and abetting codefendant Shawn Johnson in an armed bank robbery. Quinn's defense was that, when he drove Johnson to National Penn Bank on the morning of the robbery, he did not know that Johnson intended to rob a bank teller at gunpoint. Quinn hoped Johnson would testify on his behalf at trial, but Johnson was awaiting sentencing on the robbery charges and invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination and refused to testify. The District Court refused Quinn's request to immunize Johnson so he could testify. The District Court’s refusal of Quinn’s request to immunize Johnson so he could testify was, Quinn contends, an error, for without it he was unable to rebut the Government’s accusations against him. Quinn also alleged prosecutorial misconduct in that the Government postponed Johnson's sentencing until after Quinn's trial to induce Johnson to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege.

In Quinn, the Third Circuit recognized two situations in which a criminal defendant may be entitled to have a defense witness receive immunity for his testimony. The first is based upon prosecutorial misconduct, when the government acts "with the deliberate intention of distorting the fact-finding process (for example, by threatening a defense witness)." Ibid at p. 4, citing U.S.A. v. Herman, 589 F. 2d 1191, 1204 (3d Cir. 1978); U.S.A. v. Morrison, 535 F. 2d 223 (3d Cir. 1976). If prosecutorial misconduct is found, the charges must be dismissed unless the government immunizes the witness at a new trial.

The second situation was recognized by the Third Circuit in its previous case of Government of the Virgin Islands v. Smith, cited above. In that case, the Third Circuit held that even if the government refuses to immunize the witness, the trial judge could grant judicial immunity, if the testimonial evidence was clearly exculpatory and essential to the defense.

However, the Third Circuit has now held that "[n]o statute or Supreme Court ruling has authorized judicial grants of immunity for a defense witness." The Court has further held that "[t]he decision to immunize a witness to obtain his testimony is a core prosecutorial function, as immunizing necessarily involves weighing the public's need for testimony against the risk that immunity will inhibit later prosecution of criminal wrongdoing. We, in our corner of the Judiciary now step away from our reach into this prosecutorial realm." As such, judicial immunity has been abolished and the decision to grant immunity lies solely with the prosecution. The Third Circuit retained the limited, five- part test, created in Smith for determining whether the government’s denial of immunity deprived the defendant of due process.

In the Quinn opinion, the Third Circuit held that the government did not engage in wrongdoing and did not deliberately distort the fact-finding process by delaying the witness's sentencing. Therefore, the conviction was affirmed.

About Hope C. Lefeber:

Hope C. Lefeber is a practicing criminal defense attorney in New York City and Philadelphia. She is a magna cum laude, graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University School of Law, and is a member of the Federal Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and numerous other criminal defense groups. Ms. Lefeber has represented many high-profile clients, published numerous articles, lectured on federal criminal law issues, taught Continuing Legal Education classes to other Criminal lawyers and has appeared on TV News as a legal expert.. Ms. Lefeber specializes in white collar crimes, drug crimes and appeals and is the Managing Member of her law firm, Hope C. Lefeber, LLC.