Today's law enforcement officers are informed early on that one day they may face civil litigation as a result of merely doing their jobs. Indeed, arrestees sometimes threaten officers with the fateful words, I'm gonna sue you! Some follow through, others do not, but regardless, officers involved in a serious incident resulting in injuries for the arrestee know such a threat may become a reality. And most also know such a lawsuit may be subject to a statute of limitations.
This month's column addresses a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in February that hit this topic. The case pertains to the question of when a civil-rights claim for false arrest begins. In its simplest terms, a statute of limitations refers to the time frame within which a claimant can file a civil-rights lawsuit. Once you know when that time frame begins, you can calculate the last day of that time frame the due date. Generally, if a civil-rights plaintiff fails to file the lawsuit within the applicable statute of limitations, they are forever barred from filing that claim against the officer.
In Wallace v. Kato,1 Chicago Police Department police officers took a young man, Andre Wallace, and his acquaintance to the department for questioning after witnesses and informants stated the two were selling drugs in the vicinity of the spot where an individual was shot three times and killed.2 The shooting took place on Jan. 17, 1994, and the police picked up the subjects two days later. Two detectives began questioning Wallace and his acquaintance in the late evening hours and continued until the early morning of the following day.3 According to the police, Wallace was free to leave the station house at any time.4 Wallace confessed to the murder, and an assistant state's attorney was brought in to prepare a written statement to that effect. Wallace signed the statement agreeing to waive his Miranda rights. About an hour before he signed the statement, Wallace informed the officers he was only 15 years old.5
Prior to his criminal trial, Wallace filed several motions to suppress his statements to include that his arrest was made without probable cause and that his statements were the result of coercion and in violation of his Miranda rights.6 His motions were denied. Wallace was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and later sentenced to 26 years in prison. He appealed the conviction. The Illinois Appellate Court found that because Wallace had been seized for a significant amount of time prior to confessing, it would issue an order remanding the case back to the trial court to determine if the confession was legal.7 The trial court held the confession was admissible. Wallace appealed a second time, and this time the appellate court ruled the confession was inadmissible.8 A few months later, on April 10, 2002, the prosecutors dropped the charges against him, and he was released from prison.
Nearly one year later (and approximately nine years from his arrest), Wallace filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 alleging various federal- and state-law claims against the two Chicago detectives and the City of Chicago. With respect to his federal claims, Wallace alleged his rights under the Fourth Amendment were violated. The city and the officers filed (and were granted) a motion for summary judgment asserting that because Wallace filed his claims beyond the time limitations, his claims should be barred. Wallace appealed, and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision dismissing his claim. Wallace took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court for one last chance at a reversal, but he was disappointed once again; the Court affirmed the prior court rulings.
The question before the Supreme Court: When does the statute of limitations begin to run for purposes of a federal claim for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment when the arrest is followed by criminal proceedings? The Court answered it begins to run at the time the arrestee becomes detained pursuant to legal process, such as when he appear[s] before the examining magistrate and [is] bound over for trial.9
In reaching this decision, the Supreme Court reiterated that while Section 1983 provides federal causes of action for various civil-rights violations, this particular law depends on the statute of limitations for personal-injury torts of the individual state in which the federal cause of action arose.10 Examples: In Illinois, a federal Section 1983 action for a Fourth Amendment violation must be filed within two years of the date of the incident forming the basis of the claim, while in New York and Washington, the statute of limitations for a federal Section 1983 claim is three years.11 Thus, if Wallace filed his claim beyond the two-year limitations period, his claim would be forever barred, thereby prohibiting him from filing any civil-rights lawsuit against the Chicago defendants.
The issue in this case was not so much the length of the statute of limitations, but the date it actually started or accrued. Wallace asserted the statute would begin to run the date his conviction was finally nullified and the state prosecutors dropped his case or, in this instance, April 10, 2002. The Chicago police officers and the City contended the statute of limitations began to run at the time of his arrest, Jan. 20, 1994. If Wallace was correct, the filing of his federal lawsuit on April 2, 2003, was well within the time limitations. If the Chicago defendants were correct, even taking into account the tolling provisions,12 Wallace filed his claim too late.
Unfortunately, Wallace and the Chicago defendants were not the only persons who disagreed about the start date (or date of accrual) of a federal cause of action for false arrest in which the arrest is followed by criminal proceedings. Indeed, the Supreme Court took this case to resolve the differing views among the federal courts of appeals. According to the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 9th Circuits, false-arrest claims could not be brought until the conviction was nullified, just as Wallace argued.13 On the other hand, the 1st, 3rd, 8th, 10th and 11th Circuits have held that false-arrest claims accrue at the time of the arrest.14
In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the correct starting point for a false-arrest claim in which criminal proceedings are initiated afterward is when a judge reviews the criminal charges against the criminal defendant and binds them over for trial. As such, Wallace's claim for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment was untimely.
The Bottom Line
In sum, a federal civil-rights claim for false arrest typically begins at the moment the individual is arrested. However, in a false-arrest claim where the individual is subjected to criminal proceedings, the latest starting point for purposes of the statute of limitations is at the time the individual is brought before a judge and bound over for trial or arraigned. Officers and risk managers must keep in mind that the time frame within which that individual can file their federal claim under either scenario will depend on the personal-injury tort statute of the state within which the incident arose.
Do not construe this column as legal advice. Each police officer should consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice on any specific issue.
1. 127 S.Ct. 1091 (2007).
2. Wallace v. City of Chicago, 03 C 2296, 2004 WL 2452728 *1 (N.D. Ill. October 29, 2004).
4. Wallace v. City of Chicago, 440 F.3d 421, 423 (7th Cir. 2006).
7. Wallace, 2004 WL 2452728 *1.
9. Wallace, 127 S.Ct. at 1097.
10. Id. at 1094.
11. See, Perez v. Police Dept. of City of New York, 872 F.Supp. 49 (S.D.N.Y. 1994); RK Ventures, Inc. v. City of Seattle, 307 F.3d 1045, 1048 (9th Cir. 2002).
12. Individuals have two years after they reach the age of majority (pursuant to each State s law) to file a federal claim; in this case, Wallace turned 18 (Illinois age of majority) on Nov. 7, 1999. Therefore, according to the defendants, the statute of limitations would have expired on Nov. 7, 2001.
13. Wallace, 440 F.3d at 428.