Justices Take Pragmatic Tack On Narrow Civil Rights Issue

By Jody Godoy | June 20, 2019, 8:36 PM EDT

In making clear that defendants should be able to bring civil rights claims against prosecutors after, and not during, their criminal cases, the U.S. Supreme Court took a practical approach that helps defendants while raising yet-unanswered questions, attorneys say.

In a 6-3 ruling Thursday, the court dealt with the civil rights of defendants who face criminal charges that are based on fabricated evidence. The court held that the time limit to sue over that fabricated evidence should start from the time the case ends in the defendant’s favor, and not, as the Second Circuit held, when the defendant first learns that the evidence was fabricated.

Civil liberties groups had argued ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision that the Second Circuit’s outlier ruling could usher in a parade of horribles for defendants, putting many in the untenable position of having to fight prosecutors on simultaneous civil and criminal fronts.

Sam Callahan, an attorney at Arnold & Porter who wrote one of those briefs on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and other groups, said the decision shows the justices took the realities of the situation to heart.

“It’s a practical, commonsense decision about how criminal defense and how civil rights litigation work, and how they should work together,” Callahan said.

The ruling dealt with the case of Edward McDonough, a Democratic election commissioner in Rensselaer County, New York, who was acquitted in 2012 on charges related to forged absentee ballots. McDonough sued prosecutor Youel Smith nearly three years later under Section 1983 of the U.S. Code, which allows for civil rights claims, arguing Smith had fabricated evidence in the case.

The district court threw out the case as filed too late, and the Second Circuit agreed. The circuit court found that the three-year statute of limitations had started when McDonough had reason to believe he had been charged based on fabricated evidence.

Mark Mosier, a Covington & Burling LLP partner who represented New York University School of Law’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law in an amicus brief, said the Second Circuit’s ruling could have resulted in viable civil rights claims falling by the wayside because the defendant was still under prosecution.

“Separating them and letting the civil case wait until after the criminal case is going to be valuable for defendants and could be a further deterrent against the government from relying on fabricated evidence,” Mosier said.

While the ruling clears up that particular question, there are other related questions the case did not address.

While defendants who are convicted have the option of raising questions of prosecutorial misconduct on direct appeal or as a habeas petition, the McDonough case deals with defendants whose case has ended “favorably.”

The majority justices acknowledged that while an acquittal is clearly a favorable result, there might be other types of favorable outcomes.

“Such considerations might call for a context-specific and more capacious understanding of what constitutes ‘favorable’ termination for purposes of a §1983 false-evidence claim, but that is not the question before us,” they wrote.

Rory Little, a professor at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law who writes and teaches on criminal appeals, said it’s not clear, for example, whether a defendant whose case was dropped by prosecutors in the interests of justice has secured a favorable outcome for the purposes of being able to file a civil rights claim under Section 1983.

It’s a question that could arise in wrongful conviction cases, such as that of the Central Park Five. A recent documentary by Ava DuVernay highlighted the story of the five black teenagers who were convicted of a rape in New York City in the 1980s and served years in prison before another man confessed to the crime and their convictions were vacated on the district attorney’s recommendation.

“Jury acquittals should not be the only basis for saying the resolution was in their favor, and the court isn’t addressing that question here,” Little said.

Another question left open is what happens to McDonough’s claim at the end of the day. The Supreme Court left open the possibility — assuming the argument hasn’t already been waived or forfeited along the way — that Smith could persuade the lower court that he was acting as a prosecutor and therefore had absolute immunity.

In its own amicus brief, the U.S. Department of Justice said that result would be the right one.

In the larger scheme of things, the line distinguishing a prosecutor acting as an investigator, who would enjoy qualified immunity, and a prosecutor acting as a prosecutor, who would be covered by absolute immunity, isn’t a clear one in today’s practice, Little said.

“It’s a clear line in Supreme Court precedent; it’s not a very satisfying line to anyone who knows how the system works,” he said.

--Editing by Jill Coffey.