Wednesday, February 21, 2007

race against the clock

This week the Supreme Court decided Wallace v. Kato, in which the Court determined that the statute of limitations for a federal 1983 civil rights claim for false imprisonment / false arrest starts at the time one is detained in that criminal proceeding.
Let's flesh out the logistics of this.  Now, being a defense attorney, my attention always begins at the initial detention of my clients, not when the cops say they are 'under arrest.'  Here's a common hypo.  My client is walking down the street with two people.  The police approach, ask them questions, and keep them there until an eyewitness drives by, unbeknownst to my clients, while they are pressed up against the wall.  Then the police ask them to come down to the precinct with them.  They go.  That takes an hour.  After 12 hours of 'conversation' the police then place my client and two others under arrest.  Another 36 hours or so later, my client meets me and sees a judge who sets bail in the amount of $500,000.
My client, not having half a mill kicking around, stays in jail for motions, hearings, discovery, and finally, trial.  The DA isn't ready for trial 3 times in a row, I am not ready for trial once, the judge isn't ready for trial the next two dates because there aren't enough jury panels available or because he's on vacation or whatever.  Assuming this is indeed a 'speedy' trial, the soonest that I begin voir dire will be at least a year from the day I met my client.
My client is convicted based on one eyewitness.  My client is sentenced to, oh, let's be nice and say 8 years.
Over the course of appeals, it turns out the DA never turned over all that stuff that is constitutionally required to be turned over to the defense but almost never is.  Let's say, oh, the fact that someone else's DNA was recovered from the scene.  The intermediate state appeal took  8 months and was denied.  The final state appeal took another year and hallelujah, his conviction is overturned.  I'll eliminate any federal appeals time here for the purposes of brevity, which no doubt would have tacked on another decade or so.
So.  When does the statute of limitations start to run?  The analysis that makes the most sense to me, for a false imprisonment case, is to start running the statute of limitations from the date of the decision rendering the imprisonment false .
The Supreme Court does not agree and even expressly rejects that rationale.  The Court in this case clearly lays out that the suit starts running at the END of the alleged false imprisonment.  That makes sense - how can you sue for false imprisonment while being falsely imprisoned?  The false imprisonment ends, essentially, as soon as a client makes his first appearance, arraignment, bail hearing, etc.  As soon as a judge sets bail, the false imprisonment is over.  In my hypothetical, my client was 'falsely imprisoned' for 48 hours.  As soon as he saw the judge who slapped him with $500k bail, he had two years from that date to sue for false imprisonment.
The absurdity of this rule is that many clients won't even be CONVICTED by that point.  And if they are convicted, either rightfully or wrongfully, their appeals process will not be finished.  JUST IMAGINE how many civil suits, with a significantly lower burden of proof, will be outright dismissed on summary judgment motions based on a conviction alone in the trial court!
And furthermore, after my client has been in for 3 years, half of it pre-trial, half of it post-trial, the only thing he gets to sue for is that first 48 hours.  (Further detention must be remedied through a malicious prosecution suit, virtually impossible to win, I would guess, considering there are still DAs in the world).

1 comment:

ken flaxman said...

Nice analysis of the Wallace problem (which is the similar to the way I tried to argue the case).

But you're being overly pessimistic about the limitation on damages to the time to arraignment. This is the current rule in the Seventh Circuit for false arrest claims, but was neither accepted nor rejected by the Supreme Court in Wallace,, the efforts of the parties notwithstanding.

"The theory of his complaint is that the initial
Fourth Amendment violation set the wheels in motion for
his subsequent conviction and detention: The unlawful
arrest led to the coerced confession, which was introduced
at his trial, producing his conviction and incarceration. As
we have just explained, at common law damages for detention
after issuance of process or arraignment would be
attributable to a tort other than the unlawful arrest alleged
in petitioner’s complaint—and probably a tort
chargeable to defendants other than the respondents here.
Even assuming, however, that all damages for detention
pursuant to legal process could be regarded as consequential
damages attributable to the unlawful arrest, that
would not alter the commencement date for the statute of
(slip op. 6.)