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SCOTUS: SOL Governing § 1983 Claim Asserting Fabrication of Evidence Begins to Run on Date Criminal Proceedings Are Terminated in Complainant’s Favor

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) held that the statute of limitations for Edward McDonough’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim alleging that he was prosecuted using fabricated evidence began to run when the criminal proceedings against him terminated in his favor.

McDonough processed absentee ballots in his capacity as a commissioner of the county board of elections in Troy, New York, in 2009. Special prosecutor Youel Smith prosecuted McDonough because it turned out that some of those ballots had been forged.

Smith tried McDonough twice, the first trial ending in a mistrial and the second in acquittal.

Almost three years after the acquittal, McDonough filed suit claiming that in spite of the evidence of his innocence, Smith prosecuted him due to Smith’s political grudge against McDonough’s family. McDonough further alleged that Smith fabricated evidence to inculpate McDonough, including falsifying affidavits, coaching witnesses to lie, and orchestrating suspect DNA analysis to link McDonough to relevant ballot envelopes.

McDonough’s suit alleged two causes of action: (1) fabrication of evidence and (2) malicious prosecution without probable cause. The federal district court dismissed the malicious prosecution claim as barred by prosecutorial immunity and dismissed the fabricated-evidence claim as untimely.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with the district court’s disposition of the malicious prosecution claim. As to the fabricated-evidence claim, the Second Circuit treated it as arising under the Due Process Clause seeking to vindicate a “right not to be deprived of liberty as a result of the fabrication of evidence by a government officer.” Zahrey v. Coffey, 221 F.3d 342 (2d Cir. 2000).

The Second Circuit determined that the statute of limitations on this claim began to run as soon as McDonough knew Smith’s knowing use of fabricated evidence caused McDonough a deprivation of liberty, i.e., its determination of accrual date of the claim. Those events occurred by the time McDonough was arrested and tried. Thus, the Second Circuit reasoned that the statute of limitations expired long before the suit was filed.

Because other Courts of Appeals had ruled the statute of limitation period does not begin to run until a favorable termination of the challenged criminal proceedings, SCOTUS granted certiorari to resolve the conflict.

SCOTUS observed that although courts look to state law for the length of the limitations period, the time at which a § 1983 claim accrues is a question of federal law. Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384 (2007). That is presumptively “when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action.” Id. An accrual analysis begins with identifying the specific constitutional right alleged to have been infringed. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266 (1994).

SCOTUS assumed, without deciding, that the Second Circuit’s treatment of the fabricated-evidence claim under the Due Process Clause was correct because certiorari was not granted to decide that issue. Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). SCOTUS often decides accrual questions by referring to the common-law principles governing analogous torts. Wallace.

The Court agreed with McDonough that his fabricated-evidence claim was most analogous with a malicious prosecution claim, which accrues only after the underlying criminal proceedings have resolved in the plaintiff’s favor. Heck. That is, common-law malicious prosecution requires a showing that the defendant instigated a criminal proceeding with an improper purpose and without probable cause. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 653 (1976).

McDonough’s claim was similar in requiring him to show that the criminal proceedings against him were caused by Smith’s malfeasance in fabricating evidence. The bottom line is both claims challenge the integrity of criminal prosecutions undertaken “pursuant to legal process.” Heck.

The pragmatic concerns of Heck were also applicable here. Heck’s favorable termination rule avoids parallel criminal and civil litigation over the same subject matter and the related possibility of conflicting civil and criminal judgments. And the rule also avoids permitting collateral attacks on criminal judgments via civil litigation and “similar concerns for finality and consistency” that have motivated SCOTUS to refrain from multiplying avenues for collateral attack on criminal judgments through civil torts such as § 1983 suits. Heck. And the Heck rule prevents federal interference with state prosecutions. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971).

SCOTUS also opined that the Second Circuit’s approach “would impose a ticking limitations clock on criminal defendants as soon as they become aware that fabricated evidence has been used against them.”

This would create practical problems in jurisdictions where criminal proceedings regularly last longer than the relevant civil statute of limitations period. Defendants would then face an “untenable choice” between (1) letting their claims expire or (2) filing a civil suit against the very person who is in the midst of prosecuting them. “The first option,” SCOTUS said, “is obviously undesirable, but from a criminal defendant’s perspective the latter course, too, is fraught with peril: He risks tipping his hand as to his defense strategy, undermining his privilege against self-incrimination, and taking on discovery obligations not required in the criminal context.” The parallel litigation of the second option would also run counter to core principles of federalism, comity, consistency, and judicial economy. Consequently, SCOTUS ruled that McDonough’s § 1983 fabricated-evidence claim accrued on the date he was acquitted, and the statute of limitations for that claim began to run on that same date.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Second Circuit and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: McDonough v. Smith, 139 S. Ct. 2149 (2019). 

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