Supreme Court Expands Police Civil Liability Under the Fourth Amendment

March 29, 2017

In a long-awaited decision, the United States Supreme Court on March 21, 2017, decided that pretrial detainees may challenge the legality of their pretrial detentions under the Fourth Amendment after a probable cause determination has been made.  This decision has the potential for greatly expanding the already large liability risks that police officers face in civil rights litigation.

Elijah Manuel was allegedly removed from a vehicle following a traffic stop and searched.  The police found a vitamin bottle containing pills.  According to Manuel, a field test came back negative for controlled substances.  Manuel was arrested and brought to the Joliet Police Station.  An evidence technician tested the pills again and got the same negative result.  Manuel claims that the technician lied in his report that the pills tested positive for ecstasy.  One of the arresting officers allegedly lied in his report that he knew from his training and experience that the pills were ecstasy.  Another officer swore out a criminal complaint against Manuel for unlawful possession of a controlled substance.  Relying exclusively on the criminal complaint, a Will County Circuit Court judge determined that probable cause existed and remanded Manuel to jail.  A grand jury later indicted Manuel based on the testimony of one of the police officers that the pills tested field tested positive for ecstasy.  The charge was dropped and Manuel was released from jail when the State crime lab examined the pills and determined that they contained no controlled substances.  At the time of his release, Manuel has spent seven weeks in jail.

Manuel sued the police under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging the legality of his arrest and detention.  The lower courts dismissed the claim and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.  The Supreme Court, however, reversed.  The issue answered by the Supreme Court was whether the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, i.e., seizures without probable cause, continues after legal process commences, i.e., after a judge determines that probable cause exists to detain a person pending trial.  The Court held that a pretrial detention can violate the Fourth Amendment not only when a person is detained without probable cause prior to the onset of a criminal proceeding, but also when a judge’s probable cause determination is based solely on a police officer’s fabricated or false statements supporting probable cause.

The Court’s decision, however, does not mean complete victory for Manuel.  The Court left unresolved whether the pretrial claim is barred by the two-year statute of limitations.  Manuel argued that the claim accrued (or began) when the charges were dismissed, which would make his claim timely because he brought his civil suit less than two years later.  The City, in contrast, argued that the claim accrued on the date that the county judge made the probable cause determination, which would make the claim untimely since the civil suit was brought more than two years later.  The Supreme Court remanded this issue back to the federal appellate court to determine.

Manuel v. City of Joliet

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