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The Supreme Court's Recent Decision in Wallace v. Kato: Complicating the Process for Civil Rights Plaintiffs Challenging Unconstitutional Convictions


Monday, Apr. 09, 2007

Earlier this Term, in Wallace v. Kato, the Supreme Court held unanimously (as to the basic point) that a claim of unconstitutional wrongful imprisonment under the Fourth Amendment accrues--and the statute of limitations begins running on that claim--when the false imprisonment ends. This may occur when a wrongfully arrested person appears before a magistrate and becomes confined pursuant to lawful process.

But if an individual is convicted and waits until after release from custody (often many years later) to challenge the constitutionality of the initial arrest, he may find his claim barred by the statute of limitations.

A federal statute - known as "Section 1983" -- allows individuals to recover damages for the deprivation of federal constitutional rights by state and local government officials. However, as I explain in this column, Wallace's holding and other legal rules significantly limit Section 1983's use as an effective remedy for unconstitutional convictions.

Pre-Existing Limits on Section 1983 as a Remedy for a Wrongful Conviction

One remedy for a wrongful conviction is obvious--immediate release from confinement. But we also need a retroactive remedy, usually monetary or other compensation for the (often lengthy) time the wrongfully convicted person endured in custody. Such a remedy not only provides the wrongfully convicted person at least some compensation for the misery of unjustly served prison time, but it deters the prosecutorial overzealousness that may produce wrongful prosecutions and convictions in the first place.

The United States and fewer than half of the states provide monetary compensation where an individual can show that he was actually innocent of the charges on which he was convicted and imprisoned, by proving that he did not commit the acts or omissions charged.

But we lack an effective federal remedy for "unconstitutional convictions"--where the conviction is constitutionally defective or grounded on some underlying constitutional violation, regardless of any determination that the individual did or did not commit the acts charged.

That is where Section 1983 might come in.

But judge-made limits on Section 1983 restrict its usefulness for conviction-related constitutional claims in two key respects.

First, the key state actors in the criminal judicial process--the prosecutor, the judge, and witnesses--are absolutely immune from damages under Section 1983, regardless of how intentional or unconstitutional their misconduct. Plaintiffs can sue only pre-trial actors, such as the police officers who arrested and interrogated the accused or the investigators (including police officers and prosecutors) who gathered evidence for presentation at trial.

Moreover, a plaintiff will not recover damages related to his incarceration unless he can show that the violation of his rights at the investigation or interrogation stages set in motion the wheels that lead to his conviction and incarceration.

The second limit - and the one most relevant here -- comes from the Supreme Court's 1994 decision in Heck v. Humphrey. Under Heck, a plaintiff cannot bring a Section 1983 damages action for an "unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose lawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid" - where success on the constitutional claim would "necessarily imply" that the conviction is invalid - unless the plaintiff proves that the conviction or sentence has been reversed, expunged, declared invalid, or otherwise called into question. In practice, then, a plaintiff can sue for unconstitutional pre-prosecution conduct only if no prosecution was brought, if she was acquitted, or if her conviction later was overruled or otherwise undone.

How the Wallace Case Led to Yet Another Limit on Section 1983 Claims

Wallace imposes a third limitation on Section 1983 as a source of a constitutional remedy.

Here are the facts:

On the evening of January 19, 1994, Wallace, then fifteen years old, was taken into custody for questioning in connection with a murder in Chicago that had occurred two days earlier. Police interrogated Wallace into the early morning hours of January 20, when he agreed to confess to the murder, signing a written statement and waiving his Miranda rights.

Later that year, Wallace appeared before a magistrate and was bound over for trial.

In April 1996, Wallace was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 26 years in prison.

In 1998, the conviction was reversed on appeal when the state appellate court held that the officers had arrested Wallace without probable cause. In 2001, following remand, the appellate court held that the unlawful arrest rendered the signed confession inadmissible. The case was sent back to the trial court for a new trial.

In April 2002, rather than proceed without a confession, the state dropped the charges.

Less than one year later, Wallace filed a Section 1983 action against the City of Chicago and two Chicago police officers involved in the allegedly unlawful arrest. He claimed, among other things, that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights by arresting him and holding him in custody at the police station without probable cause.

When Did the Statute of Limitations Begin to Run on the Section 1983 Claim?

The officer defendants argued that the unlawful arrest/imprisonment claim was barred by the statute of limitations. Constitutional claims under Section 1983 borrow the personal-injury limitations period of the state in which the claim is brought; that period is two years in Illinois.

The issue before the Supreme Court became when the statute-of-limitations clock began to run on Wallace's Fourth Amendment claim?

In an opinion for a five-Justice majority, Justice Scalia stated that false imprisonment means detention without lawful process. A claim for false imprisonment accrues at the point of injury--when the individual is unlawfully taken into custody and held. For Wallace, that was in January 1994, when he was unlawfully arrested.

The limitations clock starts when the false imprisonment ends. That is, it starts when the individual no longer is held without legal process--either because he has been released or because he becomes held pursuant to lawful process. For Wallace, the wrongful imprisonment ended a bit later in 1994, when he appeared before a state magistrate and was bound over for trial.

Was Wallace in an Impossible Position Due to Heck? The Court Says No.

The case became complicated because of Heck. Wallace could not sue under Section 1983 while his conviction stood, because his constitutional wrongful-arrest claim necessarily implied the invalidity of that conviction. Wallace thus argued that he could not have sued until his conviction had been overturned and no new prosecution initiated--beginning in 2002.

The majority's answer was that Heck applies only where there is an extant conviction that would be impugned by the Section 1983 action. Heck barred Wallace's claim only after he was convicted in 1996. But nothing prevented Wallace from bringing his claim between the time the unlawful imprisonment ended in 1994 and the time of conviction. During that two-year window, no conviction yet existed to be impugned by the Section 1983 action.

The Problem with Justice Scalia's Window for Section 1983 Suits

The problem with this approach is that, in effect, it compels plaintiffs to pursue Section 1983 suits and defend against criminal charges at the same time. That would be distracting to the accused, who doubtless would prefer to focus time and energy on staying out of prison in the first place.

Justice Scalia responded that the federal court in the civil action has, and likely would exercise, discretion to stay the civil action pending resolution of the prosecution. The Section 1983 action will have been timely filed, but will not proceed until the state criminal case is concluded. If the individual is acquitted, the civil action can proceed immediately. If he is convicted, the Heck bar kicks in, the civil action will be dismissed, and the individual can refile the civil rights action only if the conviction is undone.

Equitable Tolling as an Alternative Approach

Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justice Ginsburg. Justice Breyer agreed that Wallace's claim began to run when he went before a magistrate and was bound over for trial. But he disagreed that Wallace (or any individual) was required to file his action prior to full resolution of the criminal process.

Justice Breyer argued that the Court should apply the doctrine of "equitable tolling." The limitations clock stops when a disability, immediate lack of information, or other circumstances beyond a plaintiff's control make it unreasonable to bring the lawsuit. The statute of limitations is tolled -- the clock stops ticking - out of fairness until the disability is removed. Justice Breyer argued that the state criminal prosecution - and the chance a conviction will trigger a Heck bar - constitutes such a disability.

Breyer argued that the statue of limitations is tolled from the time criminal charges are brought until the time when the charges are dismissed, the individual is acquitted, or during the period of the Heck bar established by a conviction, so long as the defendant challenges the conviction through the criminal appeals process and "reasonably asserts" the underlying unconstitutional behavior as a ground for overturning the conviction.

Interestingly, Justice Scalia acknowledged that equitable tolling applies during the period that an extant conviction imposes a Heck bar. He suggested that a Section 1983 plaintiff would have some additional time in which to file once the conviction had been undone and the bar removed, although he declined to determine how much time, since Wallace never even attempted to file within the limitations period.

The Message for the Unconstitutionally Accused: File Your Civil Suit Immediately

Wallace serves as a clear command to individuals using Section 1983 to challenge unconstitutional conduct that may lead to prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment: File now.

The case may sit untouched on the federal docket for years. And the case will be dismissed if the prosecution results in conviction. And the accused undoubtedly has other concerns on his mind. But the burden remains on him to get his civil action into court at the earliest possible point.

Howard M. Wasserman is Associate Professor of Law at Florida International University College of Law.

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