Not just cops: judge highlights how unqualified immunity shields prosecutors

Category: Civil Rights

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A federal appeals court decided last Wednesday that a former district attorney on Long Island has immunity from a civil rights suit even though his offices violated the Constitution’s prohibitions on forced labor by wrongfully indicting 10 Filipino nurses who quit their jobs in protest.

Dissenting Judge Denny Chin disagreed, saying “prosecutors were complicit” in what appears to be a racially motivated effort to take advantage of a group of foreign workers. The ruling is another example of how immunities created by the U.S. Supreme Court protect government officials from accountability even for reprehensible misconduct. Absolute immunity is broader than the widely criticized qualified immunity doctrine – and prosecutors, unlike police, are protected by both in most circumstances (as are judges and lawmakers).

This was not the first allegation of wrongdoing for the target of the nurses’ lawsuit, former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, who was found guilty of obstruction of justice and witness tampering in an unrelated 2019 case. The former DA and his top anticorruption prosecutor were convicted and each sentenced to five years in prison for a years-long coverup of serious misconduct by the county police chief – a protege of Spota’s. (Spota’s conviction is on appeal.)

Stephen O’Brien, an attorney at O’Brien & O’Brien who represents Spota and other county defendants, denies “the suggestion of any racial animus on the part of DA Spota, his assistants and/or anyone connected to” the Suffolk DA’s office.

Sentosa Care, the nursing home operator that used to employ the 10 foreign workers, has also had past civil rights issues. It was held liable by a different federal court for violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act by threatening another group of Filipino nurses with massive financial penalties if they left their jobs. Those plaintiffs were awarded more than $1.5 million, and another $3 million class settlement was approved in November 2021.

Sentosa Care didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The case decided last week at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals involves allegations that Spota was politically motivated to protect Sentosa, a large local employer. Spota charged the 10 nurses for endangering children and patients’ health when they resigned in 2006, according to the opinion. Spota’s indictments of the nurses, and also their lawyer, Felix Vinluan, came after county police and even the State Education Department – which oversees nursing licenses – declined to take enforcement or disciplinary action.

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