The canonical case of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) requires “the state” to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. In the criminal context, it does not matter whether it was police officers, prosecuting attorneys, or administrative personnel who did not disclose the evidence and it does not matter whether the violation was intentional, reckless, or negligent. Nondisclosure gives the criminal defendant a chance to argue that his or her conviction should be overturned (assuming materiality and prejudice can be shown).
Civil cases are different. Individuals can only be liable for their own federal civil rights violations, not someone else’s. Thus, many courts have found that police officers who disclose exculpatory information to prosecutors meet their obligations under Brady; if for whatever reason that evidence is not given to the criminal defendant in the criminal case, the officer is not liable for any resulting harms.
The Seventh Circuit recently held underscored that this is indeed the law in a case arising from a 2006 gang related shooting in a south suburb of Chicago. The plaintiff was convicted and spent a decade in prison. His conviction was overturned when it was discovered that an allegedly exculpatory ballistics report had not been given to his counsel before trial. He then sued several police officers and detectives based on the suppressed evidence.
But his complaint made a damning admission: he alleged that the report had been give to the prosecuting attorney several months before trial. Discovery corroborated this allegation, as there was substantial, unrebutted testimony that the detectives on the case forwarded the report to the prosecuting attorney. The district court granted summary judgment to the officers on the Brady claim, finding that they had complied with their constitutional obligations and could not be liable for non-disclosure caused by the prosecutor’s office (the plaintiff had some backup Brady arguments about other allegedly suppressed evidence, which were also rejected).
The Seventh Circuit affirmed, and did so emphatically. It explicitly held that police officers who turn exculpatory material over to prosecutors cannot be liable in a civil Brady claim on that evidence because it was not turned over in the criminal case. This holding is good news for municipalities and for conscientious police officers. Because prosecutors have almost-total immunity from suit, civil plaintiffs alleging wrongful conviction often try and pin non-disclosure of evidence on the police regardless of who (if anyone) was really at fault. That tactic should not succeed after this decision.