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SCOTUS – Unlawfully detained people may sue under Fourth Amendment

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For decades, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit bucked the path of eight circuits now, by generally barring a Fourth Amendment lawsuit claim in federal court over unlawful pretrial detentions. Today the United States Supreme Court corrected that erroneous Seventh Circuit deviation by reversing the summary dismissal of such a lawsuit filed by a man who alleged an unlawful forty-eight-day pretrial detention. Manuel v. Joliet___ U.S. ___ (March 21, 2017).

Manuel’s complaint, if true, is a cesspool of injustice, starting with police dragging passenger “Manuel from the car, called him a racial slur, and kick[ing] and punch[ing] him as he lay on the ground… The policeman then searched Manuel [on what lawful basis?] and found a vitamin bottle containing pills… Suspecting that the pills were actually illegal drugs, the officers conducted a field test of the bottle’s contents. The test came back negative for any controlled substance, leaving the officers with no evidence that Manuel had committed a crime.”

The abortion of justice did not stop there:

– Manuel’s complaint alleges that a police “evidence technician tested the pills once again, and got the same (negative) result… But the technician lied in his report, claiming that one of the pills was ‘found to be . . . positive for the probable presence of ecstasy.’”

– On the day of Manuel’s arrest, a county “judge relied exclusively on the criminal complaint—which in turn relied exclusively on the police department’s fabrications—to support a finding of probable cause. Based on that determination, [the judge] sent Manuel to the county jail to await trial.”

– Despite the negative testing of the alleged ecstasy pills, a grand jury indicted Manuel after hearing false “testimony from one of the arresting officers that ‘[t]he pills field tested positive’ for ecstasy.” Manuelslip op. at n. 2.

– “While Manuel sat in jail, the Illinois police laboratory reexamined the seized pills, and on April 1, [2011,] it issued a report concluding (just as the prior two tests had) that they contained no controlled substances.”

– “Only on May 4 [33 days after the police lab’s drug test turned up negative] did an Assistant State’s Attorney seek dismissal of the drug charge… The County Court immediately granted the request, and Manuel was released the next day. In all, he had spent 48 days in pretrial detention.”

Despite Manuel’s victimization from such multiple police and systemic abortions of justice, the Seventh Circuit stuck to its precedential mumbo jumbo that the Fourth Amendment cannot be used for a lawsuit challenging the legality of a detention once the “legal process” — whereby a judicial officer finds probable cause to detain the criminal defendant pending trial — is underway.  Manuel dismisses such a notion out of hand: “As reflected in Albright’s [Albright v. Oliver, 510 U. S. 266 (1994)] tracking of Gerstein’s [Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U. S. 103 (1975)] analysis, pretrial detention can violate the Fourth Amendment not only when it precedes, but also when it follows, the start of legal process in a criminal case.”

Manuel’s two dissenters are the Supreme Court’s most conservative justices, who are Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, who, through Justice Alito’s dissent, conclude that a claim of malicious prosecution may not be brought under the Fourth Amendment. If confirmed, will Neil Gorsuch solidly join the conservative wing of the Supreme Court? I expect yes.

Manuel does not mean that plaintiff Manuel will get his full day in trial court, because he first has the statute of limitations law to contend with. Of course, Manuel is much less about the statute of limitations and more about being able to bring a Fourth Amendment claim for being unlawfully detained even after a judge finds probable cause against the defendant.