Thursday, October 24, 2013
Earlier this week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals announced its decision in Billy Julian v. Sam Hanna, et. al., in which it reversed the district court's ruling that the plaintiff's 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim for malicious prosecution was not actionable because Indiana law provided adequate alternative remedies. Most circuits allow 1983 claims for malicious prosecution whether or not an available remedy exists under state law, but the Seventh Circuit is unique in this respect. Writing for majority, Judge Richard Posner explains: "We've held that a federal claim for malicious prosecution is actionable only if the state fails to provide an adequate alternative, whether called a claim of malicious prosecution or somethings else." The defendants claimed that tort remedies for false arrest and false imprisonment supplied adequate alternative remedies to those offered for malicious prosecution. Thus, the question was whether such alternatives were "adequate."
In this case, the plaintiff had been charged with arson, burglary, and attempted theft following a fire at a local public high school. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. More than three years later, he was released after defense counsel presented evidence that one of the witnesses who had placed him at the crime scene had actually been at home on house arrest. But, he was not acquitted, and a retrial was scheduled in 2007. After repeated postponements, the charges were eventually dropped in 2010.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging malicious prosecution in violation of his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment against three Indiana police officers, the county sheriff, and the Town of Frankton, Ind. Specifically, one officer investigated the plaintiff "without lawful reason[.] Also, police officers coerced witnesses into accusing the plaintiff of starting the fire. According to the court, "The defendant officers knew the accusations were false--the officers had fabricated them and fed them to the witnesses."
The district court dismissed the plaintiff's claim on the grounds that state law provided an adequate alternative remedy, which foreclosed the plaintiff's section 1983 claim.
The Seventh Circuit reversed. The court held that available tort remedies for false arrest and false imprisonment are not adequate alternatives for malicious prosecutions claims. According to the court,
[Plaintiff] would be able to recover for those torts on the damages he sustained during the week or so that he was detained before being formally charged. These damages would be only a fraction of the total damages attributable to his malicious prosecution, for those damages accumulated over the entire period that began with his arrest and ended only when the charges against him were dismissed--a period of 9 years and 3 months. Throughout this period, when he was not actually in prison he was (or so he alleges, and quite plausibly) tormented by fear of being imprisoned or re-imprisoned and unable to obtain employment. (Internal citations omitted).
The court rejected the defendant's claim that Indiana law provides "no remedy for malicious prosecution by Indiana public officers, leaving the defendant remediless if he manages to avoid jail or prison for any of the time during which he's being maliciously prosecuted." According to the court: "Limbo is not as bad as hell, but it's sufficiently bad that it can't be written off completely." Because there was no adequate alternative remedy for the alleged civil rights violations, the plaintiff's section 1983 claim was actionable; the lower court decision was reversed.
The court remanded the case for further proceedings.