By Lisa Soronen
McDonough v. Smith is a case about forgery, deceit, fabricated evidence … and statute of limitations.
The U.S. Supreme Court held 6-3 that the statute of limitations for a fabrication of evidence claim begins running upon acquittal. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief arguing the statute of limitations should begin running earlier.
Edward McDonough, commissioner of the county board of elections, processed forged absentee ballots, which he claimed he didn’t know were forged. Youel Smith was appointed to investigate and prosecute the matter. McDonough claims Smith “falsified affidavits, coached witnesses to lie, and orchestrated a suspect DNA analysis to link McDonough to relevant ballot envelopes.” The first trial involving McDonough ended in a mistrial. He was acquitted in a second trial.
Just under three years after his acquittal McDonough sued Smith claiming Smith violated his constitutional rights by using fabricated evidence against him. Smith argued McDonough’s case was untimely because the three-year statute of limitations began to run when the evidence was used against him.
In an opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court held that the statute of limitations for a fabricated-evidence claim does not begin to run until the criminal proceedings against the defendant terminates in his or her favor. To determine when the statute of limitations should begin running, the court first turned to “common-law principles governing analogous torts.” The most analogous claim to fabrication of evidence is malicious prosecution. The statute of limitations in malicious prosecution cases does not begin to run until the underlying criminal proceedings are favorably resolved.
Second, the court reasoned that practical problems would arise if the court imposed “a ticking limitations clock on criminal defendants as soon as they become aware that fabricated evidence has been used against them.” “A significant number of criminal defendants could face an untenable choice between (1) letting their claims expire and (2) filing a civil suit against the very person who is in the midst of prosecuting them. The first option is obviously undesirable, but from a criminal defendant’s perspective the latter course, too, is fraught with peril: He risks tipping his hand as to his defense strategy, undermining his privilege against self-incrimination, and taking on discovery obligations not required in the criminal context.”
The SLLC amicus brief argued the statute of limitations in fabrication of evidence cases should begin running when the defendant learns fabricated evidence has been used to deprive him or her of liberty. The brief pointed out that the rule the court choose would “reduce legal certainty, make legitimate § 1983 claims more difficult to prove and to defend, and impose undue administrative costs on the state and local entities and officials who bear the burden of defending such claims.” The court found these and other policy arguments “unconvincing.”
Fabrication of evidence claims generally will be brought against prosecutors or state or local police officers. While the prosecutors or police officers are personally liable for money damages, their state and local government employers generally pay the damages.
Geoffrey Eaton, Winston & Strawn wrote the SLLC amicus brief in this case which the following organizations joined: National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and International Municipal Lawyers Association.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.