First Circuit: Wrongfully Incarcerated Protected Under Fourth Amendment from Malicious Prosecution

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Hernandez-Cuevas v. Taylor

Background: In 2004 a joint federal-Commonwealth task force consisting of FBI agents and local police officers opened a special investigation targeting a drug and money laundering conspiracy in Carolina, Puerto Rico.  The task force had two confidential informants (“UI-1”) and (“UI-2”), who had arranged a meeting with a target of the investigation.  After the crime had been committed the surveillance officers observed one of the vehicles drop an individual involved in the crime off at a multi-unit building where the plaintiff lived.  Throughout the next year the FBI was unable to identify the individual who exited the vehicle that day and in a rush to indict someone, two officers and UI-1 conspired to manufacture evidence implicating the plaintiff as the individual from the day of the crime.  The officers carried out a tainted photo identification even though the plaintiff bared very little resemblance to the individual described on the day of the crime.  On December 3, 2007 police arrested Hernandez, charging him with delivering $321,956 in drug proceeds to the undercover informant.  He was transferred to a federal prison in New Jersey where he was held for three months while awaiting further proceedings.  On February 29th he was released and on April 18, 2008 the United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey dismissed the charges against him.

On March 2, 2009, the plaintiff filed his complaint alleging that the conduct of the officers caused him to be held in federal custody for three months without probable cause.  The defendants argued that the case should be dismissed because the statute of limitations had passed as any Fourth Amendment claim had accrued on the day of his arrest.  While the court agreed with the defendants that the statute of limitations had passed on a straight forward Fourth Amendment false arrest claim, the statute of limitations for malicious prosecution does not begin to accrue until the day that the proceedings terminate in the plaintiffs favor (the dismissal of charges in April of 2008).  The defendants then filed another motion to dismiss, arguing that as police officers, they were entitled to qualified immunity.  The court denied their motion and the defendants filed the interlocutory appeal.

Issue: Whether the facts alleged show that the officer’s conduct violated some constitutional right

Analysis: The court began by highlighting the fact that neither the First Circuit nor the Supreme Court has determined that the Fourth Amendment includes a malicious prosecution claim.  However, each of the eight Courts of Appeals who have directly tackled the issue has concluded that individuals are protected under the Fourth Amendment against pretrial detention without probable cause.  In a common law malicious prosecution claim, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the officer acted with subjective malice.  In a purely constitutional Fourth Amendment claim, the plaintiff only needs to establish that his seizure was objectively unreasonable.  The approach taken by the Court was similar to that of other Court of Appeals who had been presented with the issue in the past; Fourth Amendment protection does not end when an arrestee becomes held pursuant to legal process.

The Court further stated that a plaintiff may bring such a claim under Section 1983 if he or she can establish that the Defendant (1) caused (2) a seizure of the plaintiff pursuant to legal process unsupported by probable cause, and (3) criminal proceedings terminated in plaintiffs favor.  In this case, the police officers acted with reckless disregard by blatantly making false statements in the warrant to arrest the Plaintiff in addition to the fact that the description given by the surveillance officer on the day of the incident did not resemble the plaintiff at all.  Finally, the case ended in the Plaintiff’s favor as the prosecutor dismissed the charges against him.

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2 thoughts on “First Circuit: Wrongfully Incarcerated Protected Under Fourth Amendment from Malicious Prosecution

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