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SCOTUS: Criminal defendant may bring civil rights claim based on 4th Amendment to contest legality of his pretrial detention

Elijah Manuel v. City of Joliet, Illinois, USSC No. 14-9496, 2017WL1050976 (March 21, 2017), reversing and remanding Manuel v. Illinois, 590 FedAppx. 641 (7th Cir. 2015)(unpublished); SCOTUSblog page (including links to briefs and commentary)

This decision is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it’s a reminder that when something goes very wrong in your client’s case he or she could have a civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983. Second, it  brought the 7th Circuit in line with 10 other circuits, which hold that the 4th Amendment right to be free from seizure unless there’s probable cause extends through the pretrial period.

Manuel was a passenger in a car pulled over by Joliet police. Officers dragged him from the car, called him a racial slur, kicked, punched and searched him. They found a bottle of pills on him and conducted a field test of its contents. The test came back negative for any controlled substance. The officers nevertheless arrested Manuel and took him to the Joliet police station. Another second of the pills yielded a negative result, but the testing technician lied and reported that one pill tested positive for “probable presence of ecstasy.” Then one of the arresting officers attested that, based on his experience, “he knew the pills to be ecstasy.” The State charged Manuel with unlawful possession of a controlled substance, and a court found probable cause to support the charge. While Manuel sat in jail awaiting trial, the Illinois police laboratory reexamined the pills and again concluded that they contained no controlled substance. A month later, the State dismissed the “possession of a controlled substance” charge against him. Slip op. at 2-3.

Manuel spent 48 days in pretrial detention though there was no probable cause that he committed a crime. He sued the City of Joliet and several of its officers under §1983 for violation of his 4th Amendment rights.  The Seventh Circuit held that once legal process has begun, a §1983 claim for pretrial detention must be based upon a Due Process violation, not a 4th Amendment violation. In Manuel’s case “legal process” began when the county court found probable cause based on false evidence. Slip op. at 3. SCOTUS reversed the 7th Circuit and held:

[C]ontrary to the Seventh Circuit’s view, Manuel stated a Fourth Amendment claim when he sought relief not merely for his (pre-legalprocess) arrest, but also for his (post-legalprocess) pretrial detention. Consider again the facts alleged in this case. Police officers initially arrested Manuel without probable cause, based solely on his possession of pills that had field tested negative for an illegal substance. So . . .  Manuel could bring a claim for wrongful arrest under the Fourth Amendment. And the same is true . . .  as to a claim for wrongful detention—because Manuel’s subsequent weeks in custody were also unsupported by probable cause, and so also constitutionally unreasonable. No evidence of Manuel’s criminality had come to light in between the roadside arrest and the County Court proceeding initiating legal process; to the contrary, yet another test of Manuel’s pills had come back negative in that period. All that the judge had before him were police fabrications about the pills’ content. The judge’s order holding Manuel for trial therefore lacked any proper basis. And that means Manuel’s ensuing pretrial detention, no less than his original arrest, violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Or put just a bit differently: Legal process did not expunge Manuel’s Fourth Amendment claim because the process he received failed to establish what that Amendment makes essential for pretrial detention—probable cause to believe he committed a crime. Slip op. at 9-10.

According to Joliet, Manuel’s 4th Amendment claim violated the statute of limitations because it accrued on the date legal process was initiated, which was more than 2 years before he filed his §1983 suit. Manuel countered that his claim accrued upon dismissal of his criminal charges, which was less than two years before he sued Joliet. SCOTUS declined to decide the issue. Instead, it directed the 7th Circuit to decide it on remand. Slip op. at 14.


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