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Court Refuses To Block Lawsuit Involving Witness Protection Program

May 30, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today refused to block a lawsuit by a Philadelphia man whose daughter was placed in the federal witness protection program without his knowledge.

The court, without comment, rejected arguments aimed at giving federal officials greater protection against being sued.

Anthony Prisco sued two former attorneys general and another federal official in 1985. He said his rights were violated when his daughter, Lauren, now 9, was moved to a new home with her mother, Maria, and her mother’s new husband, Michael Morris.

The Priscos were divorced in 1983 after six years of marriage. Prisco’s ex- wife remarried, and soon after Morris was assigned to the witness protection program. He had cooperated with the FBI in an investigation of organized crime’s drug trade in the Philadelphia area.

Under the government program, such cooperating witnesses and their families are given new identities and relocated to protect them from retribution.

Prisco, with the help of a private investigator and a lawyer, tracked down his daughter. He later won shared custody of Lauren. When his ex-wife died, Prisco was granted full custody.

Prisco sued William French Smith, who was attorney general when Lauren was relocated in the witness program, and Edwin Meese III, who held the position when the suit was filed.

The witness protection program is run by the U.S. Marshals Service, and its director, Stanley Morris, also was named as a defendant.

The three defendants sought to have the suit thrown out on immunity grounds, arguing they should be shielded from such claims.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against them last July.

The appeals court said it was premature to consider the appeals by Morris and Meese, who was still attorney general last July. Any consideration of whether they enjoy immunity must wait until after a trial on the lawsuit, the appeals court said.

Justice Department lawyers, in seeking Supreme Court review, said barring federal officials from appealing prior to trial will chill their freedom to make policy decisions.

The 3rd Circuit court acknowledged that the rationale for giving such legal immunity ″is that we do not want officials to make discretionary decisions with one wary eye on their pocketbook.″

But the appeals court said Prisco’s suit also seeks a court order to prevent public officials from violating his rights in the future. Since Prisco seeks more than money, the case against Meese and Morris must proceed to trial, the appeals court said.

It said the suit against Smith raises a different issue because he had left office before Prisco sued and thus no longer was in a position to violate Prisco’s right to know the whereabouts of his daughter.

But the appeals court rejected Smith’s arguments that he is entitled to legal immunity because at the time Lauren was assigned to the witness program, a father’s constitutional right to be told of his daughter’s relocation had not been established by the courts.

″Smith’s contention that Prisco’s rights to some form of notice was not clearly established in 1983 is totally unpersuasive,″ the appeals court said.

In the appeal acted on today, Justice Department lawyers also argued that Smith lacked personal involvement in the Prisco case - and therefore should not have to face a potentially costly judgment.

Prisco ″alleged nothing more than that Smith had supervised the Department of Justice during the relevant period,″ the government lawyers said.

The case is Smith vs. Prisco, 88-1039.

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