Third Circuit: Courts Can’t Grant Witnesses Immunity

Posted On Friday, September 6, 2013

Federal judges are out of the witness-immunity business.

Tossing aside decades-old precedent that had been rejected by the other federal courts of appeals, the Third Circuit ruled recently that district judges do not have the power to immunize witnesses whose testimony they deem “essential to the defense case.”

The unanimous decision of the en banc court in United States v. Quinn vests sole discretion for determining witness immunity in the hands of prosecutors.

Quinn was a bank-robbery case.  The defendant, who allegedly drove the getaway car, sought the testimony of his codefendant, who had pleaded guilty and was awaiting sentencing.  The codefendant invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and Quinn asked the court to grant the codefendant immunity from prosecution for his testimony, which would have forced him to testify.  Quinn based his request on a 1980 case in which the Third Circuit ruled that judges can immunize a witness where necessary to “vindicate the defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial.”

The district judge denied the request, and Quinn was convicted at trial.

On appeal, Quinn argued that the judge abused her discretion in denying his immunity request.  But not only did the en banc court reject Quinn’s argument, it rejected its own precedent, holding that the government, not the court, must determine whether a witness is entitled to immunity.

“There are good reasons for immunity decisions to reside with the Executive Branch,” the court wrote.  “Often the decision to grant or deny immunity impinges on the Government’s broad discretion as to whom to prosecute. . . . Courts are not in the best position to decide these prosecutorial tradeoffs.”

Post-Quinn, defendants in the Third Circuit remain free to argue that government misconduct prevented a witness who invoked the Fifth Amendment from testifying, thus distorting the trial process.  If a defendant can make that showing, the court wrote, the government would have the choice to either immunize the witness at a retrial or to drop the charges. 

But even in those cases, the prosecutor—not the court—retains the ultimate discretion over who receives immunity.