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Supreme Court Decision Update - Wallace v. Kato

arrest.jpgToday’s second Supreme decision is Wallace v. Kato (PDF of the opinion). It’s about when you have to file a lawsuit claiming your civil rights were violated by being falsely arrested.

QuizLaw Analysis: The conservative side of the Court today rules that the clock for when you must file such a lawsuit starts ticking at the time of your arrest, not at the time you’re proven innocent, or your conviction is overturned, or any such situation. So you can’t wait until your innocence is proven or established as it may be too late. And, of course, if your innocence hasn’t been proven or established, good luck with your claim of false arrest (although, to be fair, everyone recognizes that once filed, your case should maybe be put on hold until the criminal side of things is taken care of).

So who got arrested? Back in 1994, Andrew Wallace (who was 15 at the time) was brought in for questioning by Chicago police in connection with a shooting murder. After long interrogations, Wallace agreed to confess to the murder, and signed a prepared statement. During his trial, Wallace tried to have the confession suppressed, arguing that it was the product of an unlawful arrest. That argument failed, and Wallace was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder and given 26 years in the clink.

Wallace appealed his case and the Appellate Court of Illinois ruled that Wallace was arrested without probable cause. While he may have gone voluntarily to the police station, “his presence there ‘escalated to an involuntary seizure prior to his formal arrest.’” More appeals followed, and in August 2001, a new trial was ordered. On April 10, 2002, the prosecutors ended up dropping their charges against Wallace.

A little less than one year later, on April 2, 2003, Wallace filed a lawsuit against Chicago and several Chicago cops. His lawsuit was under section 1983, a federal law which gives folks the right to seek redress for civil rights violations. Wallace claimed that the false arrest violated his Fourth Amendment rights, and he wanted some money damages.

So how did we get before the Supremes? Rather easily. The District Court dismissed the case by granting summary judgment, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal. The basis for this was that both courts agreed that Wallace had filed his case too late. The statute of limitations (that is, when the clock started ticking for his claim) began to run at the time of his arrest, they said, not when his conviction was eventually set aside.

And what do the Supremes have to say about this? They basically agree with the lower courts (they agree that the lawsuit was filed too late, but they seem to say that the clock started a little later than when the actual arrest took place). The Scalia wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Johnny and Justices Kennedy, Thomas and Alito (and Justices Stevens and Souter concurred in the judgment). Wallace brought his claim under § 1983, which is federal law. However, you have to look at state law to figure out what the statute of limitations is.

So here, we look to Illinois law. And Illinois law says you have two years to file a a personal-injury tort claim. Everyone agrees on that point. The issue is when that two year clock started to tick for Wallace.

The Scalia begins by making it clear that, while he’s looking to state law to figure out what the statute of limitations is, this is still a question of federal law that’s resolved without referring to state law, because we’re talking about a federal cause of action. And federal law is pretty clear that the clock starts ticking “when the plaintiff has ‘a complete and present cause of action.’”

So when did Wallace have a complete and present cause of action? Well the Scalia notes that Wallace could’ve brought a lawsuit right after the arrest occurred, so “the statute of limitations would normally commence to run from that date.” But, the Scalia says, this needs to be refined a little because the common law treats false arrest and false imprisonment a little differently, and these are the closest causes of action to this case’s claim - in fact, the Scalia is going to refer to this case’s claim as false imprisonment because that refers to “detention without legal process” and that’s really what Wallace’s claim is about, because they detained him without legal process (because they didn’t have an arrest warrant).

Now, the statute of limitations for false imprisonment runs a little differently than for other torts, “dictated, perhaps, by the reality that the victim may not be able to sue while he is still imprisoned.” So the statute of limitations for false imprisonment begins to run whenever the alleged false imprisonment ended. So the question here is…

When did Wallace’s false imprisonment end? Well generally, says the Scalia, false imprisonment ends when the person is being held pursuant to a legal process - “when, for example, he is bound over by a magistrate or arraigned on charges.” Because at that point, any continued unlawful detention is part of a claim of malicious prosecution, distinct from a claim of false imprisonment or false arrest. So the Scalia says that Wallace’s false imprisonment did not end when he was released from the state’s custody after the charges were dropped in 2002. Instead, it ended way back “when legal process was initiated against him, and the statute would have begun to run from that date, but for its tolling by reason of petitioner’s minority.”

So his statute of limitations began “to run when he appeared before the examining magistrate and was bound over for trial.” And that was back in the ’90s, well more than two years before he field his lawsuit. So Wallace’s claim was time barred, and this is true even if you don’t count the years he was still a minor (since he turned 18 around 1997, six years before filing this lawsuit).

So is that it? Not yet. Wallace tried to rely on a 1994 case, Heck v. Humphrey, to support his position, and the Scalia needs to deal with that.

And what was Heck v. Humphrey about? That was also a lawsuit under § 1983. Specifically, a state prisoner had raised claims which, if true, would’ve proven that his outstanding conviction was invalid. The Court said his case was similar to one of malicious prosecution. And an element of a claim of malicious prosecution is that there was a “favorable termination of criminal proceedings.” That is, a plaintiff won’t win on a claim of malicious prosecution if they did not manage to have their conviction or sentence overturned, expunged or invalidated. As such, the cause of action for malicious prosecution doesn’t accrue until that overturning, expunging of invalidating takes place.

But false imprisonment is different, because there is not necessarily an initial conviction (i.e., you can be falsely imprisoned yet never be charged or convicted of anything). So the Scalia says that Wallace is basically asking the Court to adopt a much wider principle than what Heck was about - Wallace would have the Court rule that any lawsuit “which would impugn an anticipated future conviction cannot be brought until that conviction occurs and is set aside” (Scalia’s emphasis, not mine). And that’s obviously impractical - in a false arrest situation, the plaintiff would have “to speculate about whether a prosecution will be brought, whether it will result in conviction, and whether the pending civil action will impugn that verdict” without even knowing what evidence the prosecution has. And what happens if they guess wrong and there is no prosecution - how would we know when to start the clock?

So Scalia says balls to all that. Besides, if Wallace had filed his lawsuit when he should have, he might have been able to then have the civil case stayed until all the state criminal proceedings were done.

But, there’s one more complication. Actions under § 1983, “unlike the tort of malicious prosecution which Heck took as its model, [citation], sometimes accrue before the setting aside of - indeed, even before the existence of - the related criminal conviction.” That is, a malicious prosecution claim can never accrue before a conviction and subsequent setting aside of the conviction, but a § 1983 claim can. So the question becomes, when there is a conviction in a § 1983, does this toll the statute of limitations (i.e., put the clock on hold), only letting it run again when the conviction is overturned (as in Heck)?

Why is that important here? Because if you stop the clock when Wallace was convicted, in 1996, and then start it again when his conviction was overturned and the charges were finally dropped, his case would fall within the statute of limitations.

And is that the case? Of course not. The Scalia says that we should look to state law to figure out when and if the statute of limitations is tolled. And Wallace hasn’t shown any Illinois law “in even remotely comparable circumstances.” And the Scalia is not “inclined to adopt a federal tolling rule to this effect.”

Ok, and what about the concurrence? Well Justice Stevens wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Souter, because he agrees with Scalia’s conclusion, but he would get there “by a more direct route.” He doesn’t think you need to make analogies to common-law torts, like the Scalia did:

Instead, I would begin where all nine Justices began in Heck. That case, we unanimously agreed, required the Court to reconcile § 1983 with the federal habeas corpus statute…[and] we found that the writ of habeas corpus, and not § 1983, affords the “‘appropriate remedy for state prisoners attacking the validity of the fact or length of their confinement.’”

But Wallace wouldn’t be able to seek a writ of habeas corpus here, which means that Heck just doesn’t apply and can’t act to postpone the accrual of his claims. Maybe, says Stevens (agreeing with Scalia), a civil trial brought at the proper time could have been stayed until the state criminal proceedings were over, but that doesn’t support a decision that the claims hadn’t accrued.

So that’s why he agrees with the judgment. He then goes on to slap the Scalia around a little, saying: “The Court regrettably lets the perfect become the enemy of the good,” because the Scalia says there may sometimes be cases where someone in Wallace’s shoes could actually bring a habeas petition. But Stevens says: “It is always possible to find aberrant examples in the law, but we should not craft rules for the needled rather than the haystack in an area like this.”

Uhm, ok. And the dissent? Well that would be Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg. Breyer agrees that Heck wouldn’t bar the accrual of the § 1983 claim here, and he also agrees with everyone that, had Wallace filed his lawsuit in time, “the Federal District Court might have found it appropriate to stay the trial of his claims until the completion of state proceedings.” But he doesn’t like the notion of always requiring the early filing of a § 1983 lawsuit, “followed by an uncertain system of stays, dismissals, and possible refiling.” Breyer feels that you can instead say that the claim has been “equitably” tolled because of “disabling circumstances.”

In particular, equitable tolling could apply where a § 1983 plaintiff reasonably claims that the unlawful behavior of which he complains was, or will be, necessary to a criminal conviction.

This approach, says Breyer, is just much more practical than the majority’s approach of always requiring early filing. But the Scalia says this whole equitable tolling business is nonsense.