Given that this week is the first in the Supreme Court’s new Term, it is hardly surprising that I will devote today’s column to a case on the Court’s docket this week. The case I discuss below, Manuel v. City of Joliet (which was argued before the justices on Wednesday) is not likely to be a headline grabber, but it does illustrate some important aspects of constitutional law and some unusual features of Supreme Court practice.
The case involves the following alleged facts (which, given the procedural stage of the litigation, must be accepted as true): Elijah Manuel was arrested in Illinois on March 18, 2011, for possession with intent to distribute the drug ecstasy. The Joliet, Illinois, police who had made a traffic stop of a car in which Manuel was riding found on him a bottle of pills during a pat-down search. The bottle contained only vitamins, a fact confirmed by field tests performed by the officers at the scene. Nonetheless, police arrested Manuel and submitted the pill bottle for analysis at the police station, where the lab results again showed that the pills were neither ecstasy nor any other controlled substance. In spite of this, the police deliberately lied in their police report and stated that from their “training and experience” they believed the pills were in fact ecstasy, and that the evidence technician had confirmed a positive test result for ecstasy. Based on these intentional falsehoods, a police officer swore out a criminal complaint against Manuel, who remained in jail following his arrest.
Two weeks later, on March 31, 2011, with Manuel still under arrest, one of the police officers testified, again deliberately dishonestly, to a grand jury that there had been a positive test result for ecstasy. A grand jury indictment ensued later that day.
The next day, April 1, 2011, the police drug laboratory issued a report showing that the seized pills were not ecstasy, and in fact were not any other controlled substance either. In spite of this report, Manuel was rearraigned a week later and the drug charge against him was not dismissed for more than three more weeks, on May 4, 2011. He was not released until May 5, 2011—about six weeks after his arrest.
Fast forward to 2013. On April 10, 2013, Manuel filed a lawsuit in federal court, by himself without an attorney, against the City of Joliet and various of its officers, asserting that defendants, acting as state officials, had violated his federal constitutional rights in violation of a federal civil rights law known as “section 1983” (which is a reference to a specific provision in the United States Code). Section 1983 allows for damage suits in federal court against state officials who use their authority to violate federal rights of persons. The lawsuit alleges that defendants searched and arrested Manuel without probable cause, that they used excessive force in making the arrest, and that they falsely imprisoned him and continued to unlawfully detain him without good cause, all in violation of the Fourth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth.
The lower federal courts (the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit) dismissed the claims, ruling that most of the claims were barred by the applicable two-year statute of limitations, and that the only conduct still actionable under the two-year limitation period would be conduct that happened on April 10, 2011 or later (two years prior to the filing of the lawsuit.) But, said the lower courts, because the only claim that was not time-barred amounted to a “malicious prosecution” claim for conduct that arose after Manuel had been indicted on March 31, 2011, that claim ought to be considered a due process rather than a Fourth Amendment unreasonable-search-or-seizure claim. And under Seventh Circuit precedent, a due process claim for malicious prosecution cannot proceed in federal court if state courts provide a remedy for redress, which the Illinois courts apparently do. As a result, all of Manuel’s federal case was dismissed.
He sought certiorari in the Supreme Court, asking it in particular to decide “whether an individual’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure continues beyond legal process [that is, after an indictment has issued] so as to allow a malicious prosecution claim based upon the Fourth Amendment.”
Why the Case Is Unusual
There are a few features of this case that make it atypical. First, the Seventh Circuit decision being reviewed by the Supreme Court was itself embodied in an unpublished ruling, styled (as such things are in the Seventh Circuit) as a “Nonprecedential Disposition.” Why would the Supreme Court review a ruling that itself had no precedential weight, within the Seventh Circuit or anywhere else? One reason might be to do justice for Mr. Manuel, but the Court often reminds that its primary function is to not to make sure that lower courts have reached the right results in each case but to clarify the meaning of federal law on important and recurring questions of federal law. The real reason the nonprecedential nature of the Seventh Circuit opinion here did not argue against Supreme Court review is that the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Manuel was nonprecedential only because there was an earlier, fully precedential, published opinion in the Seventh Circuit—Newsome v. McCabe (2001)—that governed Manuel’s claims. Newsome had already decided that, in the Seventh Circuit, at least, one can’t bring a Fourth Amendment claim for conduct that takes place after an indictment has issued.
The Seventh Circuit’s approach on this question conflicts with at least nine other federal courts of appeals, all of whom do allow Fourth Amendment claims to be based on post-indictment detention. That is the big reason the Court granted review – to resolve this split between the Seventh Circuit, on the one hand, and the DC Circuit, along with the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Sixth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits, on the other hand. (The Eighth Circuit has not resolved this question, and the Fifth Circuit has taken an approach that is in between the majority approach and the Seventh Circuit’s approach.)
Circuit splits are often the main reason the Supreme Court steps in, and so the fact that Manuel involves one is not shocking. It is a bit out of the ordinary, however, for a split to be so lopsided, which raises the question why the Seventh Circuit has not been willing to reconsider its opinion in Newsome. Indeed, on appeal, Mr. Manuel asked the Seventh Circuit to do just that. But the Seventh Circuit apparently still believes in its reasoning in Newsome, and in any event as Judge Diane Wood wrote in the unpublished opinion in Manuel, Mr. Manuel’s arguments about the wrongness of Newsome are “better left for the Supreme Court.” By adding this line, Judge Wood signaled to the high Court that this may very well be an issue it should take up, thus increasing the chances that certiorari would be granted.
Who Is Right on the Merits?
To repeat, the central legal question as the case is currently framed is whether a claim for malicious prosecution for post-indictment detention falls within the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures or instead can be brought only under a due process framework. As a non-trivial aside, I should say I’m not sure why it should matter so much. In this case, it matters because the Seventh Circuit says the due process claim cannot proceed in federal court if there is a state court remedy, but I am not yet convinced that should be so.
In reaching its result here, the Seventh Circuit in Newsome (and elsewhere) drew on a famous Supreme Court case, Parratt v. Taylor (the so-called “Hobby Kit” case), in which a state prisoner sued prison officials because a hobby kit that had been mailed to him (his property) had been negligently destroyed by prison officials. The Court in Parratt said that even if the prisoner had been deprived property (the kit), the deprivation was not in violation of the Constitution because the post-destruction process (a right to gain compensation in state court) fully satisfied the Due Process clause. But, importantly, the state law process in Parratt was relevant because its existence meant that the prisoner never suffered any constitutional violation. (Remember, the Due Process Clause does not say that persons may not ever be deprived property by the State, only that they may not be so deprived without due process of law. And sometimes after-the-fact process is all that is due under the Constitution.)
But to interpret Parratt to mean that whenever state law and state courts provide a monetary remedy after property (or in this case, liberty) has been deprived then there is no claim under section 1983 seems too broad. In Parratt, remember, the state law remedy meant that there was never a federal due process violation in the first place. Government’s negligent destruction of your property is simply not in and of itself a constitutional violation; a violation occurs only if no post-negligence process is given. But when the cops in Manuel’s case intentionally deprived him of liberty by manipulating the grand jury proceedings, they committed a constitutional violation at that time. (Whether or not state courts provide redress does not change the fact of deprivation of constitutional rights – the touchstone of section 1983. Would we really say that the cops didn’t violate the Constitution simply because the State offers state court redress?)
Post-Parratt cases often focus on whether the deeds in question (whether negligent or intentional) could have been foreseen and avoided by the State, but the better question—and the one Parratt really involved—is whether the constitutional violation was complete before the State did or did not provide post-deprivation process.
The meaning and application of Parratt is not, technically at least, the issue on which the Court granted review. Neither is the question of whether the arresting and lying cops “proximately” caused Mr. Manuel’s injuries after some point in time (say, after April 1, 2011, when the true lab report came back). That might be another way to frame the key issue in the case. Some of the justices may think the two-year statute of limitations should be considered to have expired even on all Fourth Amendment claims since the first illegal arrest occurred more than two years prior to the filing of the suit. So that may be yet another frame on the case some might apply. But on the question as to which there is a circuit split (that presumably accounted for the grant of cert. from an unpublished opinion)—whether the Fourth Amendment protections continue after indictment—I hope the Court would say yes. As one amicus points out, once we say (as we have) that the Fourth Amendment protects not only against a wrongful initial arrest, but also the time between arrest and indictment, it is not at all clear why an indictment would cause its protection to vanish.