Wrongful Conviction Cases: When Does a Civil Rights Plaintiff State a Claim?

February 7, 2017

Media reports abound with stories of persons released from incarceration after being exonerated based on newly discovered evidence. These persons almost inevitably sue in federal court under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming that their constitutional rights were violated because the police allegedly coerced incriminating confessions or statements, fabricated evidence, or withheld exculpatory evidence from prosecutors. The law on these topics can be confusing. Below we discuss two recent decisions that help explain when such a civil rights claim is viable, and when it is not. 

In Avery v. City of Milwaukee, No. 15-3175 (7th Cir. Jan. 30, 2017), William Avery filed suit against the police under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming that he was wrongfully convicted of murder. Avery’s murder conviction had been overturned because newly discovered DNA evidence exonerated him. In his civil rights suit, he alleged that the police defendants fabricated his confession, induced three jailhouse informants to incriminate him, and failed to disclose the tactics of how they obtained the false statements from the informants in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The district court granted summary judgment for the police based on the Brady claim, and the remaining claims were tried and resulted in a $1,000,000 jury verdict for the plaintiff. The district court invalidated the verdict. The federal appellate court reversed. The Court drew a distinction between the use of coerced evidence which does not state a due process claim because it may actually be true, see Petty v. City of Chicago, 754 F.3d 416 (7th Cir. 2014), versus the fabrication of evidence which does violate due process. See Whitlock v. Brueggemann, 682 F.3d 567 (7th Cir. 2012). With respect to the informants’ statements, the Court held that evidence already known to the plaintiff (i.e., what he actually told the jailhouse snitch) is not Brady material, citing Gauger v. Hendle, 349 F.3d 354 (7th Cir. 2003). However, the details of how the officers extracted statements from the informants (through pressure tactics and inducements) would not have been known to the plaintiff and therefore constituted impeachment evidence that should have been disclosed under Brady. 

In Canen v. Chapman, No. 16-1621 (7th Cir. Jan. 27, 2017), Lana Canen filed suit against a police detective under 42 U.S.C. 1983, after his murder conviction was overturned. The detective, who testified as the State’s fingerprinting expert, recanted his trial testimony and conceded that he had mistakenly identified a latent fingerprint found at the crime scene as belonging to the plaintiff. The mistake occurred due to a lack of training in comparing latent fingerprints, which he never disclosed when asked to describe his background at trial. Plaintiff claimed that this was a violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The district court granted summary judgment based on qualified immunity, and the 7th Circuit affirmed. While the suppression of impeachment evidence generally may violate Brady, it was not clearly established at the time that the detective was obligated to reveal the limitations or lack of his training when asked to describe his background at trial, and then expose himself to cross-examination by the defense. The detective was also entitled to absolute testimony for his actual trial testimony.

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