SCOTUS to Decide Whether Fourth Amendment Malicious Prosecution Claims are Possible

What does a litigant do when the statute of limitations has run on his or her best claim?  Get creative, of course, especially when the Supreme Court has left the door open.

Elijah Manuel was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance even though a field test indicated his pills weren’t illegal drugs. About six weeks after his arrest he was released when a state crime laboratory test cleared him.  

If Manuel would have brought a timely false arrest claim it is almost certain he would have won. But such a claim would not have been timely because Manuel didn’t sue within two years of being arrested or charged.

So he brought a malicious prosecution claim under the Fourth Amendment. An element of a malicious prosecution claim in that the plaintiff prevails in the underlying prosecution. Manuel “prevailed” when the charges against him were dismissed; and he brought his lawsuit within two years of the dismissal.

The question the Supreme Court will decide in Manuel v. City of Joliet is whether malicious prosecution claims can be brought under the Fourth Amendment in the first place. The Supreme Court left this question open in Albright v. Oliver (1994).

The Seventh Circuit concluded that if malicious prosecution violates the federal constitution, cases must be brought as due process claims not Fourth Amendment claims. The lower court found no violation of federal due process in this case because Illinois allows state malicious prosecution claims to be brought. 

The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) amicus brief argues that plaintiffs should not be able to bring “malicious prosecution” claims under the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures, not unwarranted or malicious prosecutions. More practically speaking, if the City of Joliet loses this case it may be possible for very stale Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claims to be brought against state and local governments. An argument could be made that people who were maliciously prosecuted and served time didn’t “prevail” until they got out of jail or prison, in some instances years after they were arrested. 

Larry Rosenthal, Chapman University, Fowler School of Law, wrote the SLLC’s amicus brief which was joined by the National Association of CountiesNational League of CitiesUnited States Conference of MayorsInternational City/County Management Association, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association.