Author: Sara Mills-Flood
State law provides the limitations period for claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Federal law provides when that period begins to run. In Smith v. City of Chicago, the Seventh Circuit explained when a § 1983 claim accrues under the Fourth Amendment for unlawful detention based on fabricated evidence. It also explained why the Heck doctrine may not bar such a claim or extend the accrual date. See Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).
The first important point of the decision is that the court was careful to draw a distinction between a claim alleging fabricated evidence resulting in malicious prosecution (Fourteenth Amendment), and a claim alleging unlawful seizure as a result of fabricated evidence (Fourth Amendment). “A claim that an official employed fabricated evidence against a plaintiff must be tethered to a specific constitutional provision”—so a plaintiff’s claim must proceed under either the Fourth Amendment (unlawful pretrial detention) or the Fourteenth Amendment (due process) and thereby become subject to attendant accrual rules.
In Smith, the plaintiff was arrested in September 2013 and detained for seven months in the Cook County Jail. He was then released on bond in March 2014, during which time he was required to appear in court once a month and to request permission before leaving the State of Illinois. In July 2016, a little more than two years after he had been released on bond, the plaintiff was ultimately acquitted of the charges for which he was arrested. In July 2018, two years after his acquittal, the plaintiff then sued the City of Chicago and the officers who arrested him alleging that they fabricated evidence to support his arrest and detention. Under Illinois state law, the limitations period for claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is two years. (Wisconsin’s statute of limitations for § 1983 claims is three years. See Wis. Stat. § 893.53.) The plaintiff filed his § 1983 claim almost five years after his arrest and the start of his detention and more than four years after he was released on bond.
A claim “that a form of legal process resulted in pretrial detention unsupported by probable cause” sounds in the Fourth Amendment. Manuel v. City of Joliet (Manuel I), 137 S. Ct. 911, 918–19 (2017). In Smith, the Seventh Circuit held that such a Fourth Amendment claim accrues when the plaintiff is “released from detention”—and not when the plaintiff is acquitted or otherwise receives a favorable termination of the proceedings (as would be the case under the Fourteenth Amendment).
A second related and somewhat nuanced point is that the Heck doctrine would not have barred the plaintiff’s suit prior to his acquittal because the “wrong” being alleged was the detention (seizure) rather than the existence of criminal charges (due process). See Manuel v. City of Joliet (Manuel II), 903 F.3d 667, 669-670 (7th Cir. 2018) (“[T]he wrong [under the Fourth Amendment] is in the detention rather than the existence of criminal charges.”).
The Smith Court analogized the plaintiff’s claim to a Fourth Amendment § 1983 claim based on an illegal stop, which accrues when the stop occurs. Such a claim is not necessarily barred by Heck because bringing a § 1983 claim prior to acquittal may only impugn the use of certain evidence gathered during the illegal stop. Conversely, a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim “attacks the whole prosecution.” Because the constitutional claim of an unlawful stop can be separated from the overall prosecution without impugning the entire prosecution, it is not barred by Heck.
In the pretrial detention context, “the wrong ends when the detention ends.” Thus, “even when charges remain outstanding, a Fourth Amendment claim for unlawful pretrial detention accrues upon the plaintiff’s release from detention, and not upon the favorable termination of the charges against the plaintiff.”
The third important holding relates to the plaintiff’s detention and whether bond conditions may constitute a seizure. If so, the plaintiff was “in custody” or detained until his acquittal and his claim would not accrue until that time. The court noted a circuit split on this issue and held as a matter of first impression that any “standard” bond or pretrial conditions—such as a requirement to appear in court for hearings or a requirement that the plaintiff request permission before leaving the state—did not amount to Fourth Amendment seizures regardless of whether they are considered together or separately. Federal courts do not recognize the concept of a “continuing seizure.” And the obligation to appear in court, on its own, does not constitute a seizure because “to hold otherwise would transform every traffic ticket and jury summons into a potential Section 1983 claim.” Bielanski v. City of Kane, 550 F.3d 632, 642 (7th Cir. 2008).
While the Seventh Circuit held that a Fourth Amendment claim accrues when the plaintiff is released on bond, it explicitly stated that it was adopting a “case-by-case approach.” It did not foreclose the possibility that a bond condition might constitute a Fourth Amendment seizure. But to succeed, any challenged bond condition “must fall within the traditionally defined scope of what constitutes a seizure.” The Smith Court stated that this scope is limited to “a fixed event” involving the use of physical force or a submission to a show of authority.