State and Local Legal Center Files Supreme Court Amicus Brief in Fabrication of Evidence Case

The issue the Supreme Court will decide in McDonough v. Smith is whether the statute of limitations for a due process fabrication of evidence claim begins to run when the criminal proceedings terminate in the defendant’s favor, or when the defendant becomes aware of the tainted evidence and its improper use. The States and Local Legal Center (SLLC) amicus brief argues for the latter standard.

Edward McDonough, former Democratic Commissioner of Rensselaer County Board of Elections, approved forged absentee ballot applications which he claims he didn’t know had been falsified. Youel Smith investigated and prosecuted McDonough. McDonough claims Smith “engaged in an elaborate scheme to frame McDonough for the crimes by, among other things, fabricating evidence.” After two trials, McDonough was ultimately acquitted.

Just before three years passed since McDonough was acquitted he sued Smith under Section 1983 for violating his due process rights by fabricating evidence and using it against him. Section 1983 allows citizens to sue state and local government officials in federal court for constitutional violations.

Section 1983 claims have a three-year statute of limitations. Smith claims that McDonough’s claim is time barred because he failed to file his lawsuit within three years of finding out that Smith used fabricated evidence against him.

McDonough argued his claim was most analogous to a malicious prosecution claim, which does not accrue until a favorable termination of the prosecution. The Second Circuit held that McDonough’s due process claim was time barred because the three-year statute of limitations started running when the fabricated evidence had been disclosed to him (as late as the end of his first trial), not on the day of his acquittal.  

The SLLC amicus brief argues in favor of the Second Circuit holding that the statute of limitations should begin to run in due process fabrication of evidence claims when the defendant learns fabricated evidence had been used to deprive him of liberty. The indefinite delay resulting from McDonough’s preferred favorable termination rule would “reduce legal certainty, make legitimate § 1983 claims more difficult to prove and to defend, and impose undue administrative costs on the state and local entities and officials who bear the burden of defending such claims.”

Fabrication of evidence claims generally will be brought against prosecutors or state or local police officers. While the prosecutors or police officers are personally liable for money damages, their state and local government employers generally pay the damages.

Geoffrey Eaton, Winston & Strawn wrote the SLLC amicus brief in this case which the following organizations joined: National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and International Municipal Lawyers Association.