Police Misconduct Takes Back Seat to Time Bar at SCOTUS

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By Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson

Oct. 5 — Police mistreatment of a young black man was at the heart of oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court Oct. 5, but the justices had to grapple with a procedural issue instead ( Manuel v. City of Joliet, U.S., No. 14-9496 , argued 10/5/16 ).

Elijah Manuel claims he was harassed and beaten during a traffic stop and that officers knowingly falsified drug tests. Manuel says he was unlawfully jailed for 47 days because of those tests.

But before Manuel can sue the city of Joliet, Ill. for the wrongful detention, the justices first have to decide whether he can bring his claims in federal court. Depending on which constitutional provision the Supreme Court looks to in support of Manuel’s civil rights claim, he could be sent to state court, or no court at all.

During oral argument the city appeared to agree with Manuel that he had a Fourth Amendment claim for the allegedly improper detention. That would allow his claim to be heard in federal court—maybe.

Manuel still has to show that he filed his civil rights case in time. That statute of limitations question was one the justices struggled with, leading Justice Elena Kagan to say that the high court should just leave that question to the lower court.

Due Process or Fourth Amendment?

Manuel brought his claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983, which allows individuals to sue cities and their officials for constitutional violations. Manuel said the city violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure when police falsified the drug tests and wrongfully detained him.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit disagreed. That court said that the Fourth Amendment “falls away at the arraignment,” Kagan explained.

Any civil rights violations beyond that must be based on the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, the Seventh Circuit said.

That would kick Manuel's claims out to state court, as Illinois provides an “adequate state law remedy” for such a violation, the Seventh Circuit said.

Fourth Amendment violations, however, aren't extinguished even if there are adequate state law remedies to address the constitutional violation.

Where’s the Line?

Kagan pointed out that the Seventh Circuit is the only circuit to hold that a claim like Manuel’s, which extends to detention beyond arraignment, can’t be brought under the Fourth Amendment.

Even the city didn’t agree with the Seventh Circuit. During oral argument, the city’s attorney, Michael Scodro of Jenner & Block LLP, Chicago, said the Fourth Amendment does support a claim for improper detention.

Several justices wondered where the line was on when the Fourth Amendment no longer applied. Would the Fourth Amendment support a claim all the way through to a conviction, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer suggested the Fourth Amendment would give way whenever there is a conviction. At that point, the defendant isn’t detained because of the false evidence, he said, but rather because of the conviction.

Cherry Picking?

Even with the line still unclear, there seemed to be a good chance that the court would allow Manuel to bring his Fourth Amendment claim. The issue then became whether Manuel brought that claim in time.

The statute of limitations doesn’t begin to run until there is a “favorable termination” of Manuel’s detention, according to Manuel’s attorney Stanley Eisenhammer of Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn LLP in Arlington Heights, Ill. That’s when the charges against Manuel were dropped and he was released from detention, Eisenhammer argued.

That’s borrowing from malicious prosecution claims, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said. But malicious prosecution has nothing to do with the Fourth Amendment, he said.

Eisenhammer countered that in Section 1983 claims, federal courts must determine the elements of the constitutional claims. In doing so, they can pull from the “closest state analogy,” he said.

Here, that’s malicious prosecution, Eisenhammer said. So the court can pull elements of malicious prosecution into the Section 1983 claim—including the “favorable termination” statute of limitations element, he said.

That seems like “results-oriented cherry picking,” Roberts said.

Procedural Hurdles to Race Considerations

Scodro went further, and said that malicious prosecution wasn’t the most analogous state claim. Instead, it’s unlawful arrest.

In that case, the statute of limitations would begin to run whenever there is independent “legal process,” like an arraignment, Scodro said.

Breyer noted, however, that while the overwhelming number of circuits recognize this kind of Fourth Amendment claim, they disagree on the statute of limitations question.

Perhaps the Supreme Court should send the case back to the Seventh Circuit to sort it out, Kagan suggested.

The case is one of several this term that will touch on race and the criminal justice system, but where procedural hurdles could keep the justices from considering those issues.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bna.com

For More Information

Full transcript available at http://src.bna.com/jbL.

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