Nahmod Law

Manuel v. City of Joliet: The Court Rules Section 1983 “Malicious Prosecution” Claims Can Be Based on the Fourth Amendment But Otherwise Punts

Background

Recall that the Supreme Court granted certiorari on January 15, 2016, in Manuel v. City of Joliet, 136 S. Ct. 890 (2016), an unreported Seventh Circuit section 1983 malicious prosecution decision.

Manuel, which was argued on October 5, 2016, had the potential to be a blockbuster section 1983 decision that transformed the section 1983 malicious prosecution landscape, especially for section 1983 claims brought for wrongful conviction and incarceration.

In Manuel, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court dismissing the plaintiff’s section 1983 Fourth Amendment claim that police officers maliciously prosecuted him when they falsified the results of drug tests and thereafter arrested him for possession with intent to distribute ecstasy. The district court relied on Newsome v. McCabe, 256  F.3d 747 (7th Cir. 2001), and the Seventh Circuit panel found no compelling reason to reconsider that precedent. The Seventh Circuit explained: “Newsome held that federal claims of malicious prosecution are founded on the right to due process, not the Fourth Amendment, and thus there is no malicious prosecution claim under federal law if, as here, state law provides a similar cause of action.”

This was the Question Presented in Manuel: “Whether an individual’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure continues beyond legal process so as to allow a malicious prosecution claim based upon the Fourth Amendment.”

According to the Petition for Writ of Certiorari, the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and D.C. Circuits had all answered this question in the affirmative, while only the Seventh Circuit had answered in the negative.

Manuel raised two separate but related questions.

1. The first was whether the Fourth Amendment could be used as the basis for a section 1983 malicious prosecution claim, including for the period after so-called legal process began–when a judge determined that probable cause existed to hold the plaintiff.

2. The second, implied by the language of the Question Presented, and addressed by several of the Justices during oral argument, was whether the elements of the tort of malicious prosecution–including favorable termination as well as malice and absence of probable cause–should play any role in section 1983 claims challenging wrongful convictions and incarceration. This question was important under the facts in Manuel itself because, without a favorable termination requirement, the plaintiff’s section 1983 claim would be time-barred under the Illinois two-year statute of limitations even if it could be based on the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court’s Decision: Reversed on the Fourth Amendment But Punting on “Malicious Prosecution”

On March 21, 2017, the Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit’s decision that rejected the applicability of the Fourth Amendment after legal process has begun. In an opinion by Justice Kagan, the Court held that there is indeed a Fourth Amendment right to be free from seizure without probable cause that extends through the pretrial period, even though the seizure is “pursuant to legal process.” Specifically, the seizure occurs both before the onset of legal proceedings, i.e, the arrest, and after the onset of criminal proceedings, i.e., where a judge’s probable cause determination is based solely on a police officer’s false statements, as was allegedly the case in Manuel. The Court’s reasoning was similar to the “continuing seizure” approach of Justice Ginsburg’s concurrence in Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266 (1994).

However, the Court remanded to the Seventh Circuit on the favorable termination/accrual question after describing the opposing positions on the issue, including the observation that the United States agreed with the plaintiff in Manuel, as did eight of the ten circuits that have favorable termination requirements.

Justice Kagan’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor. Justices Thomas and Alito dissented, with Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, arguing both that the Fourth Amendment was not applicable in Manuel and that the plaintiff was not entitled to the benefit of a unique malicious prosecution accrual rule based on a favorable termination requirement.

Comments

The Court’s decision on the Fourth Amendment only changes the law in the Seventh Circuit. However, the Court punted on the broader question whether common law malicious prosecution elements, including favorable termination, should play any role in section 1983 jurisprudence outside of situations covered by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), where plaintiffs effectively challenge existing convictions.

These issues–raised, briefed and argued in Manuel– have been a matter of importance to me for some time. In fact, I wrote an amicus curia brief (posted previously) in support of the defendants in Manuel that deliberately did not take a position on the Fourth Amendment issue. Instead, the brief urged the Court to eliminate the confusion caused by the use of malicious prosecution terminology in section 1983 cases. The brief also maintained that the elimination of this terminology would be neutral in its effects on plaintiffs and defendants alike. My treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2016)(West), has for years called for the virtual elimination of most of the tort-like terminology used for such purposes and for a renewed focus on the constitutional bases for such claims.

Manuel provided the Court with its first opportunity in the twenty-three years since Albright v. Oliver to consider the elements of such claims. Regrettably, it did not do so in Manuel. Still, the Court will one day have to deal with these issues, including the favorable termination requirement.

When it does, recently confirmed Justice Gorsuch will be involved in the decision. And it is worth noting that then-Judge Gorsuch concurred in the judgment in Cordova v. City of Albuquerque, 816 F.3d 645 (10th Cir. 2016), where he came out against incorporating the common law tort elements of malicious prosecution, including favorable termination, in section 1983 cases.

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Written by snahmod

May 15, 2017 at 10:05 am

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