Monday, August 23, 2021

Second Circuit protects fair-trial claims under Section 1983

The Court of Appeals has held that fabrication-of-evidence claims (also known as fair-trial claims) do not require the plaintiff to show the underlying arrest terminated in his favor, as that phrase is defined in malicious prosecution claims. In a victory for plaintiffs, this ruling confirms that fair trial claims are separate and apart from malicious prosecution claims.

The case is Smalls v. Collins, issued on August 20, 2021. The case was consolidated for oral argument and decision with Daniel v. Taylor. Along with Gregory Antollino, I argued this case on behalf of Daniel. This case represents as complex an analysis under 42 U.S.C. 1983 as you'll find, as the Court of Appeals had to take close look at a recent Supreme Court case and reconcile it with longstanding Second Circuit cases on fair-trial claims.

For years, the Second Circuit recognized that fair-trial claims, in which the plaintiff alleges the police fabricated evidence against a criminal defendant, are brought under the Due Process Clause, which protects the integrity of the trial process, even if there was probable cause to arrest the defendant. Malicious prosecution claims, on the other hand, are brought under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, which means that the plaintiff cannot sue unless the criminal prosecution terminates in a manner indicating the defendant was innocent. That means ACD's and dismissals "in the interest of justice" make it impossible to bring a malicious prosecution claim. Under this calculation, plaintiffs are better off with a fair-trial claim than a malicious prosecution claim.

This distinction between fair-trial and malicious prosecution claims was placed in jeopardy in 2019, when the Supreme Court issued McDonough v. Smith, 139 S.Ct. 2149 (2019), which borrowed from malicious prosecution doctrine in holding that the statute of limitations on fair-trial claims starts when the criminal prosecution terminates in the criminal defendant's favor. The City of New York, and some district court judges in New York, interpreted McDonough to mean that fair-trial claims cannot proceed unless the criminal charge terminates in the defendant's favor, as per malicious prosecution claims. That is why Smalls' and Daniel's federal civil rights cases were dismissed: neither plaintiff's criminal case (on weapons charges) ended with a resounding verdict of acquittal at their criminal trials. Smalls' case terminated after the Appellate Division vacated his conviction because it stemmed from an unlawful search, and the remaining charge was dropped against Smalls on remand in criminal court, as that charge was the fruit of an unlawful seizure as well. And Daniel took an ACD. Under the City's analysis, fair-trial claims would essentially be folded into malicious prosecution claims, and these claims as a whole would be far less common as many criminal defendants, even in the face of police misconduct, end in ACD's and dismissals in the interests of justice.

The Second Circuit (Sack, Menashi and Kaplan [D.J.]) rejects the City's interpretation, holding that fair-trial claims are viable if the criminal case against the plaintiff has terminated, under principles set forth in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), which holds that Section 1983 claims cannot proceed if they would necessarily undermine a parallel criminal conviction, such that, in the most obvious case, someone convicted in criminal court cannot claim the underlying arrest lacked probable case. In the fair-trial context, Judge Sack holds that "McDonough's accrual rule does not import malicious prosecution's favorable-termination requirement onto section 1983 fair-trial claims. Where the plaintiff asserts a section 1983 fair-trial claim based on fabricated evidence, all that is required is that the underlying criminal proceeding be terminated in such a manner that the lawsuit does not impugn an ongoing prosecution or outstanding conviction." Since Smalls and Daniel both had their criminal cases terminated before they filed suit under Section 1983, their cases are revived. For Small, that means his favorable Section 1983 verdict is reinstated. For Daniel, it means the Rule 12 dismissal is vacated and his case proceed to discovery.

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