The Supreme Court held in a 6-3 decision on Thursday that the statute of limitations for a 42 U. S. C. §1983 fabricated-evidence claim does not begin until the criminal proceedings against a defendant have finished.
The plaintiff in McDonough v. Smith was a commissioner of the county board of elections who processed ballots in a primary election in Troy, New York, in which the defendant, Smith, was specially appointed to investigate and prosecute a case of forged absentee ballots. McDonough was acquitted of all charges at a second trial on December 21, 2012. Three years later, on December 18, 2015, McDonough sued Smith for fabricating evidence. The district court dismissed the case and the Second Circuit affirmed, holding that the 3-year statute of limitations started running when (1) McDonough learned that the evidence was false and was used against him during the criminal proceedings, and (2) he suffered a loss of liberty as a result of that evidence.
Justice Sotomayor, writing the majority opinion, held that McDonough had a complete and present cause of action, analogizing the claim to the common law tort of malicious prosecution, which manifests as a cause of action only once the underlying criminal proceedings have resolved in the plaintiff’s favor. Following the analogy, the court explained that “McDonough could not bring his fabricated-evidence claim under §1983 prior to favorable termination of his prosecution.” As such, the statute of limitations could only begin to run once the proceedings against McDonough terminated in his favor.
This requirement is due to the concern of parallel criminal and civil litigation over the same subject matter and the possibility of conflicting judgments, as well as to avoid collateral attacks on criminal judgments through civil litigation. Another practical concern wrote Justice Sotomayor was that in some jurisdictions criminal proceedings could last as long as, or even longer than, the statute of limitations. Criminal defendants could face the dilemma of either letting their claims expire or filing a parallel civil claim against his or her prosecutor who is in the midst of prosecuting them.
Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Kagan and Justice Gorsuch, disagreed with the majority opinion. The dissenters said that since McDonough failed to specify a constitutional right violated, it was difficult for the Court to decide when the statute of limitations should start running.