The case of Garmon v. County of Los Angeles arose as a result of a false statement made by a Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney in connection with a subpoena issued for medical records. The criminal defendant the prosecutor was prosecuting was on trial for murder, and his mother (the plaintiff in Garmon v. County of Los Angeles) was an alibi witness for her son. The mother, Ms. Detrice Garmon, had to have surgery for a brain tumor prior to the trial and in that connection gave consent to have the hospital release to the prosecutor records pertaining to that brain tumor.
However, the prosecutor went ahead and issued a subpoena for all of Ms. Garmon's medical records, falsely indicating on the declaration attached to the subpoena that Ms. Garmon was the victim in the murder case as opposed to a witness. This misleading statement, made under penalty of perjury, enabled the prosecutor to circumvent HIPPA privacy rules and obtain all of Ms. Garmon's medical records. Then, at trial, the prosecutor proceeded to use all that medical information (which was beyond the scope of what Ms. Garmon had consented to and which was obtained under false pretenses made under penalty of perjury) to impeach Ms. Garmon.
Ms. Garmon's son was convicted and Ms. Garmon filed a Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit against the prosecutor, the prosecutor's supervisor and the County of Los Angeles.
The district court dismissed Ms. Garmon's case. Ms. Garmon persevered and appealed her case to the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the district court's ruling and resurrected Ms. Garmon's civil rights case.
The Ninth Circuit's ruling involves many technical legal points, but among the important aspects is that the Ninth Circuit determined that neither the prosecutor who made the false statement nor her supervisor enjoyed absolute immunity for making the false statement in the declaration attached to the subpoena (although both enjoyed absolute immunity for issuing the subpoena itself).
The doctrines of absolute immunity and qualified immunity for prosecutors are difficult hurdles for plaintiff's to overcome, and holdings in cases such as Garmon v. County of Los Angeles (as well as in another recent Ninth Circuit case, Goldstein v. City of Long Beach, addressing prosecutor immunity in connection with a wrongful conviction obtained through perjured testimony by a jailhouse snitch) indicate a shift in towards more justice for those wronged by California prosecutors.
The other recent Ninth Circuit case, Cuero v. Cate, arose in the context of a writ of habeas corpus. The case was filed by inmate Michael Cuero after a San Diego prosecutor reneged on a plea deal with him. Before he was sentenced to prison, Mr. Cuero had entered into a plea deal in open court during which he agreed to plead guilty to two felonies and one prior strike in exchange for the prosecutor dismissing another charge and ensuring that he would receive a sentence of not longer than 14 years and 4 months.
But that is not what ended up happening. Instead, the day before Mr. Cuero was scheduled to be sentenced to the prison term for which he had bargained in his plea deal, the prosecutor simply "amended" the complaint to add another prior strike, which brought Mr. Cuero's exposure to 64 years to life. The judge sat by and let the prosecutor renege on his deal with Mr. Cuero, who ended up with a sentence of 25 years to life.
Like Ms. Garmon, Mr. Cuero did not just shake his head and forget about what happened. He appealed his case all the way to the Ninth Circuit...and won!
The court in Cuero v. Cate granted habeas relief -- finding that the judge's decision to allow this post-plea amendment was contrary to clearly established federal law in violation of Mr. Cuero's due process rights. The Ninth Circuit instructed the district court to issue a conditional writ requiring the prosecutor to resentence Mr. Cuero in accordance with his original plea deal.
Plaintiffs like Detrice Garmon and inmates like Michael Cuero face significant obstacles when they try to hold prosecutors accountable for prosecutor misconduct and for outright underhanded arrogance that has no place in our justice system. The rulings in Garmon v. County of Los Angeles and Cuero v. Cate help remove some of those obstacles and pave the way for a more fair legal system in which prosecutors are bound by the rule of law like everyone else.