Second Thoughts on Damages for Wrongful Convictions

36 Pages Posted: 5 Mar 2010 Last revised: 29 May 2010

See all articles by Lawrence Rosenthal

Lawrence Rosenthal

Chapman University, The Dale E. Fowler School of Law

Date Written: February 25, 2010


After the DNA-inspired wave of exonerations of recent years, there has been widespread support for expanding the damages remedies available to those who have been wrongfully accused or convicted. This article argues that the case for providing such compensation is deeply problematic under the justificatory theories usually advanced in support of either no-fault or fault-based liability. Although a regime of strict liability is sometimes thought justifiable to as a means of creating an economic incentive to scale back conduct thought highly likely to produce social losses, it is far from clear that the risk of error is so high in the criminal justice system as to render this rationale applicable. Moreover, because police and prosecutors respond to political and not economic incentives, the eonomic rationale for strict liability is unsatisfactory. Even viewed as a form of social insurance, mandatory compensation is problematic. Because compenation is funded by the taxpayers, it represents a highly anomalous wealth transfer from those most in need of government assistance to the wrongfully convicted. Given the many competing demands for scarce public resources, it is far from clear that public funding of wrongful conviction insurance represents a socially optimal use of public funds. Moreover, because damages awards are funded by the taxpayers rather than the wrongdoers, the case for compensation as a form of compensatory justice is equally problematic. As for a regime of fault-based liability, both tort law and constitutional law have long wrestled with the problem of wrongful convictions, and have erected many doctrinal obstacles to a regime of fault-based liability. These doctrinal obstacles reflect considerable skepticism about the wisdom of damages for wrongful convictions — skepticism that is amply warranted. A regime of fault-based liability for wrongful prosecutions and convictions could not be confidently expected to induce police and prosecutors to take all cost-justified precautions to reduce the risk of wrongful prosecution or conviction given that police and prosecutors respond to political and not economic incentives, and the political benefits of aggressive prosecutorial tactics are substantial. If individual public officials were required to pay judgments, in turn, many judgments would go unsatisfied, and the risk of overdetrrence would be great. Ultimately, our current regime of political accountability for wrongful convictions is likely to be about the best than we can expect for identifying and reducing the risk of wrongful prosecutions and convictions.

Keywords: torts, constitutional torts, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial immunity, qualified immunity, malicious prosecution

Suggested Citation

Rosenthal, Lawrence, Second Thoughts on Damages for Wrongful Convictions (February 25, 2010). Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 85, No. 1, 2010, Chapman University Law Research Paper No. 10-13, Available at SSRN:

Lawrence Rosenthal (Contact Author)

Chapman University, The Dale E. Fowler School of Law ( email )

One University Drive
Orange, CA 92866-1099
United States

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