Supreme Court Ducks Malicious Prosecution Question

In Manuel v. City of Joliet the Supreme Court held 6-2 that even after “legal process” (appearing before a judge) has occurred a person may bring a Fourth Amendment claim challenging pretrial detention. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief arguing that malicious prosecution claims cannot be brought under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court didn’t address this issue in its decision.

Elijah Manuel was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance even though a field test and a lab test indicated his pills weren’t illegal drugs. A county court judge further detained Manuel based on a complaint inaccurately reporting the results of the field and lab tests. Forty-eight days later Manuel was released when another laboratory test cleared him.  

Manuel brought an unlawful detention case under the Fourth Amendment. The Seventh Circuit held that such a case had to be brought under the Due Process Clause which Manuel failed to do.

Justice Kagan explains why pretrial detention after legal process can be challenged under the Fourth Amendment:

The Fourth Amendment prohibits government officials from detaining a person in the absence of probable cause. That can happen when the police hold someone without any reason before the formal onset of a criminal proceeding. But it also can occur when legal process itself goes wrong—when, for example, a judge’s probable-cause determination is predicated solely on a police officer’s false statements. Then, too, a person is confined without constitutionally adequate justification. Legal process has gone forward, but it has done nothing to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s probable-cause requirement. And for that reason, it cannot extinguish the detainee’s Fourth Amendment claim— or somehow, as the Seventh Circuit has held, convert that claim into one founded on the Due Process Clause.

The Supreme Court left it to the lower court to decide when the cause of action accrued in this case: when Manuel was arrested or when charges against him were dismissed. If it is when Manuel was arrested, his unlawful detention claim is time barred.  

The question the Supreme Court initially decided to answer in this case is whether “malicious prosecution” claims may be brought under the Fourth Amendment, which is why the SLLC amicus brief focused on this question. Justice Alito in his dissenting opinion chastised the majority for not deciding this question and concluded that malicious prosecution claims cannot be brought under the Fourth Amendment.

It is not unusual for the Court to say it is going to decide a particular issue and then decide another issue instead.

Larry Rosenthal, Chapman University, Fowler School of Law, wrote the SLLC’s amicus brief which was joined by the National Association of CountiesNational League of CitiesUnited States Conference of MayorsInternational City/County Management Association, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association.