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What is Legal Immunity?

A witness with legal immunity cannot be prosecuted for crimes she confesses to in court.
Diplomats have special legal immunity that prevents them from facing trial for actions related to their role.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2014
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Legal immunity is a type of legal protection which is offered to certain people in particular circumstances. Essentially, someone with this protection cannot be prosecuted. The most well known example of legal immunity is probably prosecutorial immunity, which is sometimes offered to a witness in exchange for his or her testimony in a case. In return for testifying, the prosecution agrees not to pursue the witness for crimes which he or she discusses in the testimony. This is often used in conspiracy cases where prosecutors are willing to let minor criminals go if it means that they can bring down ringleaders.

There are numerous different types of legal immunity, all of which offer different types of protections. In the case of prosecutorial immunity, for example, a prosecutor may choose to offer blanket immunity or use immunity. In blanket immunity, also known as transactional immunity, the prosecutor agrees not to pursue any sort of legal charges against the witness for past crimes. In use immunity, a prosecutor may not use the testimony of a witness to build a case against him or her, but the prosecutor is allowed to prosecute the witness for past crimes.

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In many countries, judges are offered a form of legal immunity which is known as judicial immunity. Recognizing that it is important for judges to be fair and unbiased, nations do not allow certain types of legal cases against judges and court officials so that these people can conduct their jobs without fear of retaliatory legal action. Since a judge can make decisions which could negatively impact someone's life, this type of immunity can be very important. Similar protections are also sometimes offered to members of parliament or legislature.

Diplomats and sovereigns also have a special type of legal immunity. In the case of diplomats, governments recognize that diplomacy is extremely important, and that diplomats might be afraid to serve if they could be prosecuted in their host countries. Under the terms of diplomatic immunity, diplomats can be expelled, but they cannot generally be brought to trial for actions relating to their roles as diplomats. If a diplomat commits a crime such as murder, however, diplomatic immunity is waived. Sovereigns are assumed to be above the law in many nations, and therefore they are granted immunity.

It is important to remember that legal immunity comes in a variety of flavors. Witnesses who are granted immunity, for example, are exonerated of liability for past crimes, but they can still be brought to trial in the future for crimes they did not disclose, or for crimes committed after the trial. Legal immunity for people like diplomats and sovereigns also does not cover major crimes, and legislators and judges are still subject to the law outside the legislature and the courtroom.

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anon346586
Post 6

What about legislators? Can they be found withe immunity even though they write, vote for or pass an act that is blatantly illegal like an ex post facto act or can they be found liable under Title 18 USC sec 241 and 242?

anon269903
Post 4

It would seem that in the government of the USA where the people created the Constitution and are the sovereign authority, any immunity would have to come from those same people. And if not directly by the people, those same people would have had to give authority to the government to grant any type of immunity, especially if the Constitution is violated.

The American Constitution neither grants immunity nor grants authority to any branch or person in govt to give immunity. Any immunity claimed would then be void and illegal.

Planch
Post 3

Great article -- this really gave me a lot of insight into how the whole legal immunity thing works.

I did just have one question though. Is it ever possible to get immunity from a legal settlement? For example, could you ever get legal immunity over a small claims injunction or something like that?

Of course it wouldn't be such a big deal for such a small legal injunction like a small claims suit, but it could make a difference if a company could somehow get legal immunity and not have to pay out a settlement in a class action or a mass tort.

So does this ever happen, or is it even possible? I'm really curious to find out.

googlefanz
Post 2

Would you say that some form of legal immunity is available for every legal law suits, or are there some circumstances in which you simply have no hope of getting immunity?

Also, can the offer of immunity be withdrawn? For instance, let's say you get an offer of immunity, and then during the legal discovery process the prosecutor finds out that you've done something absolutely horrible.

Can they still prosecute you for that, or are you covered by legal immunity? Or are there different kinds of immunity that apply in different cases, some of which can be withdrawn and some of which cannot be withdrawn?

closerfan12
Post 1

Thanks for this article -- you always hear people talking about legal immunity in TV shows like it's something that you can just hand out at will, but the actual procedure is so much more nuanced and complicated than that.

I felt that this article gave a really nice, sober overview of the whole legal immunity system, as well as the whole idea of how legal immunity can affect certain people.

And best of all you made it clear that you don't have to be a lawyer to understand legal immunity -- the way you described the whole system was easy to understand, yet at the same time very detailed and helpful.

Thanks for this great article.

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