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McDonough v. Smith

United States Supreme Court

June 20, 2019

EDWARD G. McDONOUGH, PETITIONER
v.
YOUEL SMITH, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS SPECIAL DISTRICT ATTORNEY FOR THE COUNTY OF RENSSELAER, NEW YORK, AKA TREY SMITH

          Argued April 17, 2019

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

         Petitioner Edward McDonough processed ballots as a commissioner of the county board of elections in a primary election in Troy, New York. Respondent Youel Smith was specially appointed to investigate and to prosecute a case of forged absentee ballots in that election. McDonough became his primary target. McDonough alleges that Smith fabricated evidence against him and used it to secure a grand jury indictment. Smith then brought the case to trial and presented allegedly fabricated testimony. That trial ended in a mistrial. Smith again elicited allegedly fabricated evidence in a second trial, which ended on December 21, 2012, with McDonough's acquittal on all charges. On December 18, 2015, McDonough sued Smith under 42 U.S.C. §1983, asserting, as relevant here, a claim for fabrication of evidence. The District Court dismissed the claim as untimely, and the Second Circuit affirmed. The court held that the 3-year limitations period began to run "when (1) McDonough learned that the evidence was false and was used against him during the criminal proceedings; and (2) he suffered a loss of liberty as a result of that evidence," 898 F.3d 259, 265. Thus, the court concluded, McDonough's claim was untimely, because those events undisputedly had occurred by the time McDonough was arrested and stood trial.

         Held: The statute of limitations for McDonough's §1983 fabricated-evidence claim began to run when the criminal proceedings against him terminated in his favor-that is, when he was acquitted at the end of his second trial. Pp. 3-15.

(a) The time at which a §1983 claim accrues "is a question of federal law," "conforming in general to common-law tort principles," and is presumptively-but not always-"when the plaintiff has 'a complete and present cause of action.'" Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 388. An accrual analysis begins with identifying "the specific constitutional right" alleged to have been infringed. Manuel v. Joliet, 580 U.S. ___, ___. Here, the claimed right is an assumed due process right not to be deprived of liberty as a result of a government official's fabrication of evidence. Pp. 4-5.
(b) Accrual questions are often decided by referring to the common-law principles governing analogous torts. Wallace, 549 U.S., 388. The most analogous common-law tort here is malicious prosecution, which accrues only once the underlying criminal proceedings have resolved in the plaintiffs favor. Following that analogy where it leads: McDonough could not bring his fabricated-evidence claim under §1983 prior to favorable termination of his prosecution. Malicious prosecution's favorable-termination requirement is rooted in pragmatic concerns with avoiding parallel criminal and civil litigation over the same subject matter and the related possibility of conflicting civil and criminal judgments, and likewise avoids allowing collateral attacks on criminal judgments through civil litigation. See Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 484-485. Because a civil claim such as McDonough's, asserting that fabricated evidence was used to pursue a criminal judgment, implicates the same concerns, it makes sense to adopt the same rule. The principles and reasoning of Heck-which emphasized those concerns with parallel litigation and conflicting judgments-confirm the strength of this analogy. This case differs because the plaintiff in Heck had been convicted and McDonough was acquitted, but McDonough's claims nevertheless challenge the validity of the criminal proceedings against him in essentially the same manner as the plaintiff in Heck challenged the validity of his conviction. Pp. 5-9.
(c) The soundness of this conclusion is reinforced by the consequences that would follow from imposing a ticking limitations clock on criminal defendants as soon as they become aware that fabricated evidence has been used against them. That rule would create practical problems in jurisdictions where prosecutions regularly last nearly as long as-or even longer than-the limitations period. Criminal defendants could face the untenable choice of letting their claims expire or filing a civil suit against the very person who is in the midst of prosecuting them. The parallel civil litigation that would result if plaintiffs chose the second option would run counter to core principles of federalism, comity, consistency, and judicial economy. Smith's suggested workaround-stays and ad-hoc abstentions-is poorly suited to the type of claim at issue here. Pp. 9-11.
(d) Smith's counterarguments do not sway the result. First, relying on Wallace, Smith argues that Heck is irrelevant to McDonough's claim. The Court in Wallace rejected the plaintiffs reliance on Heck, but Wallace involved a false-arrest claim-analogous to common-law false imprisonment-and does not displace the principles in Heck that resolve this case. Second, Smith argues that McDonough theoretically could have been prosecuted without the fabricated evidence, and was not convicted even with it; and thus, because a violation could exist no matter its effect on the outcome, the date of that outcome is irrelevant. Although the argument for adopting a favorable-termination requirement would be weaker in the context of a fabricated-evidence claim that does not allege that the violation's consequence was a liberty deprivation occasioned by the criminal proceedings themselves, that is not the nature of McDonough's claim. His claim remains most analogous to a claim of common-law malicious prosecution. Nor does it change the result that McDonough suffered harm prior to his acquittal, because the Court has never suggested that the date on which a constitutional injury first occurs is the only date from which a limitations period may run. Third, Smith argues that the advantages of his rule outweigh its disadvantages as a matter of policy. But his arguments are unconvincing. It is not clear that the Second Circuit's approach would provide more predictable guidance, and while perverse incentives for prosecutors and risk of foreclosing meritorious claims could be valid considerations in other contexts, they do not overcome other considerations here. Pp. 11-15.

898 F.3d 259, reversed and remanded.

          SOTOMAYOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GlNSBURG, BREYER, ALITO, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KAGAN and GORSUCH, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          SOTOMAYOR JUSTICE.

         Petitioner Edward McDonough alleges that respondent Youel Smith fabricated evidence and used it to pursue criminal charges against him. McDonough was acquitted, then sued Smith under 42 U.S.C. §1983. The courts below, concluding that the limitations period for McDonough's fabricated-evidence claim began to run when the evidence was used against him, determined that the claim was untimely. We hold that the limitations period did not begin to run until McDonough's acquittal, and therefore reverse.

         I

         This case arises out of an investigation into forged absentee ballots that were submitted in a primary election in Troy, New York, in 2009. McDonough, who processed the ballots in his capacity as a commissioner of the county board of elections, maintains that he was unaware that they had been forged. Smith was specially appointed to investigate and to prosecute the matter.

         McDonough's complaint alleges that Smith then set about scapegoating McDonough (against whose family Smith harbored a political grudge), despite evidence that McDonough was innocent. Smith leaked to the press that McDonough was his primary target and pressured him to confess. When McDonough would not, Smith allegedly fabricated evidence in order to inculpate him. Specifically, McDonough alleges that Smith falsified affidavits, coached witnesses to lie, and orchestrated a suspect DNA analysis to link McDonough to relevant ballot envelopes.

         Relying in part on this allegedly fabricated evidence, Smith secured a grand jury indictment against McDonough. McDonough was arrested, arraigned, and released (with restrictions on his travel) pending trial. Smith brought the case to trial a year later, in January 2012. He again presented the allegedly fabricated testimony during this trial, which lasted more than a month and ended in a mistrial. Smith then reprosecuted McDonough. The second trial also lasted over a month, and again, Smith elicited allegedly fabricated testimony. The second trial ended with McDonough's acquittal on all charges on December 21, 2012.

         On December 18, 2015, just under three years after his acquittal, McDonough sued Smith and other defendants under §1983 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. Against Smith, McDonough asserted two different constitutional claims: one for fabrication of evidence, and one for malicious prosecution without probable cause. The District Court dismissed the malicious prosecution claim as barred by prosecutorial immunity, though timely. It dismissed the fabricated-evidence claim, however, as untimely.

         McDonough appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which affirmed. 898 F.3d 259 (2018). The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court's disposition of the malicious prosecution claim. As for the timeliness of the fabricated-evidence claim, because all agreed that the relevant limitations period is three years, id., at 265, the question was when that limitations period began to run: upon McDonough's acquittal, or at some point earlier. In essence, given the dates at issue, McDonough's claim was timely only if the limitations period began running at acquittal.

         The Court of Appeals held that McDonough's fabricated-evidence claim accrued, and thus the limitations period began to run, "when (1) McDonough learned that the evidence was false and was used against him during the criminal proceedings; and (2) he suffered a loss of liberty as a result of that evidence." Ibid. This rule, in the Second Circuit's view, followed from its conclusion that a plaintiff has a complete fabricated-evidence claim as soon as he can show that the defendant's knowing use of the fabricated evidence caused him some deprivation of liberty. Id., at 266. Those events undisputedly had occurred by the time McDonough was arrested and stood trial. Ibid.

         As the Second Circuit acknowledged, id., at 267, other Courts of Appeals have held that the statute of limitations for a fabricated-evidence claim does not begin to run until favorable termination of the challenged criminal proceedings.[1] We ...


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