Supreme Court Rules the Statute of Limitations for §1983 Fabricated-Evidence Claims Begins to Run When the Criminal Proceedings Against A Plaintiff Terminate in His Favor.

July 3, 2019

On June 20, 2019, the Supreme Court decided McDonough v. Smith. In McDonough, a commissioner of the county board of elections was investigated for forged absentee ballots in a 2009 primary election in New York. The commissioner alleged that the district attorney fabricated evidence against him and used it to secure a grand jury indictment. The district attorney brought the case to trial in January 2012 and it ended in a mistrial. The district attorney re-prosecuted the commissioner and the second trial ended with the commissioner’s acquittal on all charges on December 2012.

On December 18, 2015, just under three years after his acquittal, the commissioner sued the district attorney and other defendants under §1983 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. After asserting two claims, the District Court dismissed the malicious prosecution claim as barred by prosecutorial immunity, though timely. However, the fabricated-evidence claim was dismissed as untimely. The commissioner appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which affirmed. The Circuit court agreed with the disposition of the malicious prosecution claim.

As for the timeliness of the fabricated-evidence claim, all agreed that the statute of limitations period is three years. The Supreme Court then granted certiorari to resolve the conflict of when that limitations period begins to run; upon the acquittal or upon learning the evidence used against him was false.

The time at which a §1983 claim accrues is a “question of federal law,” conforming in general to common-law tort principles.” Wallace v Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 388 (2007). The Supreme Court often decides accrual questions by referring to the common-law principles governing analogous torts. The Court agreed with the commissioner that malicious prosecution is the most analogous common-law tort in this case. Malicious prosecution requires showing, in part, that a defendant instigated a criminal proceeding with improper purpose and without probable cause.

Relying on Heck v Humphrey, malicious prosecution’s favorable termination requirement is rooted in pragmatic concerns with avoiding parallel criminal and civil litigation over the same subject matter and the related possibility of conflicting civil and criminal judgments. See Heck 512 U.S., at 484-485. The requirement likewise avoids allowing collateral attacks on criminal judgments through civil litigation.

The statute of limitations for a fabricated-evidence claim like the commissioner’s does not begin to run until the criminal proceedings against the defendant (i.e., the §1983 plaintiff) have terminated in his favor. Here, that was when the commissioner was acquitted at the end of his second trial.

The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit was reversed and remanded.

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