CA3: Due process clause not the Fourth Amendment governs claims for a coerced false confession and years of false imprisonment

The due process clause not the Fourth Amendment governs claims for a coerced false confession and years of false imprisonment. Halsey v. Pfeiffer, 750 F.3d 273 (3d Cir. 2014):

Section 1983 provides a civil remedy for the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To state a claim under section 1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate that “some person has deprived him of a federal right … [and] that the person who has deprived him of that right acted under color of state or territorial law.” Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640, 100 S.Ct. 1920, 1923, 64 L. Ed. 2d 572 (1980). Appellees do not contend that they were not acting under the color of state law when they questioned Halsey during their investigation of the murders and, as we have noted, they acknowledge that by fabricating evidence a state actor violates a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights.

But the parties disagree over the identification of the constitutional right implicated in a fabrication case. This identification can be important. Appellees maintain that a state actor by fabricating evidence violates only the Fourth Amendment and its protection against unlawful seizures, and the violation is redressable, as we have indicated that they have asserted, only by bringing a case for malicious prosecution. Pfeiffer’s br. at 30-31. See Johnson, 477 F.3d at 81-82. Halsey, however, grounds the right to be free from fabricated evidence on the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process of law. Appellant’s br. at 25-26.

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The boundary between Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment claims is, at its core, temporal. The Fourth Amendment forbids a state from detaining an individual unless the state actor reasonably believes that the individual has committed a crime—that is, the Fourth Amendment forbids a detention without probable cause. See, generally, Bailey v. United States, ___ U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 1031, 1037, 185 L. Ed. 2d 19 (2013). But this protection against unlawful seizures extends only until trial. See Schneyder v. Smith, 653 F.3d 313, 321 (3d Cir. 2011) (observing that post-conviction incarceration does not implicate the Fourth Amendment). The guarantee of due process of law, by contrast, is not so limited as it protects defendants during an entire criminal proceeding through and after trial. Pierce v. Gilchrist, 359 F.3d 1279, 1285-86 (10th Cir. 2004) (“The initial seizure is governed by the Fourth Amendment, but at some point after arrest, and certainly by the time of trial, constitutional analysis shifts to the Due Process Clause.” (internal citation omitted)).

In the future we may be called on to chisel more finely the lines between the two claims—thus we might be required to decide precisely when an unlawful seizure “ends and [a] due process … [violation] begins.” Pierce, 359 F.3d at 1286. But we are spared the burden of doing so now because the fabricated confession obviously injured Halsey long after he suffered an injury attributable to his pre-trial detention. In his complaint, Halsey alleged that the fabrication of evidence resulted in an unfair trial and his wrongful conviction that, in turn, led to his incarceration. He supported these allegations opposing the summary judgment motions with evidence that the confession was fabricated, that it was the key ingredient to securing his indictment and conviction, and that it was the reason he spent 22 years in prison, almost 20 of which he served after his wrongful conviction. Wherever the boundary between the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims lies, it is in the rear view mirror by the end of trial, when Fourth Amendment rights no longer are implicated. See, e.g., Schneyder, 653 F.3d at 321; Donahue v. Gavin, 280 F.3d 371, 382 (3d Cir. 2002) (disallowing recovery for post-conviction injuries based on the Fourth Amendment); Torres v. McLaughlin, 163 F.3d 169, 174 (3d Cir. 1998) (“At most, there may be some circumstances during pre-trial detention that implicate Fourth Amendment rights; however, we refer to the Fourth Amendment as applying to those actions which occur between arrest and pre-trial detention.”).

Accordingly, at least some of Halsey’s allegations stemming from the alleged oral confession do not fall under the traditional definition of a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim. See Johnson, 477 F.3d at 81-82. We therefore must decide whether his fabrication claim can be grounded on the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

. . .

We emphatically reject the notion that due process of law permits the police to frame suspects. Indeed, we think it self-evident that “a police officer’s fabrication and forwarding to prosecutors of known false evidence works an unacceptable ‘corruption of the truth-seeking function of the trial process.’” Id. (quoting, inter alia, United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97, 104, 96 S.Ct. 2392, 2397, 49 L. Ed. 2d 342 (1976)). Requiring that a plaintiff join a fabrication claim with a malicious prosecution claim would come close to making “a mockery of the notion that Americans enjoy the protection of due process of the law and fundamental justice.” Ricciuti v. N.Y.C. Transit Auth., 124 F.3d 123, 130 (2d Cir. 1997).

We could not reconcile a contrary conclusion with the mandate of section 1983 that guarantees defendants (and other persons as well) against “deprivation of any rights … secured by the Constitution.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (emphasis added). As the Supreme Court has explained, section 1983 was intended “to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails.” Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 161, 112 S.Ct. 1827, 1830, 118 L. Ed. 2d 504 (1992). A rule of law foreclosing civil recovery against police officers who fabricate evidence, so long as they have other proof justifying the institution of the criminal proceedings against a defendant, would not follow the statute’s command or serve its purpose.

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