In the year since Justice Antonin Scalia died, the eight-justice court has repeatedly decided only issues that they can agree on, and has frequently remanded more difficult questions for future resolution. Unsurprisingly (see my post-argument analysis), that pattern held true in today’s decision in Manuel v. City of Joliet. A 6-2 majority ruled that the Fourth Amendment is the proper basis on which to challenge a post-arrest detention that was continued for seven weeks, allegedly without probable cause. Beyond that, Justice Elena Kagan’s opinion “le[ft] all other issues” for remand, over Justice Samuel Alito’s and Clarence Thomas’ dissents.
Taking the complaint as true
Elijah Manuel alleged that an officer pulled him from a car, beat him, called him racial slurs, and then arrested him for drugs even though a field test on pills Manuel was carrying came back negative. He further alleged that an evidence technician at the police station conducted another test on the pills that also came back negative, but that the technician falsely stated that the test was positive. Another officer then swore out a complaint against Manuel; based on all these false statements, a county judge ordered Manuel to be detained. Manuel was not released until seven weeks later, after a state police lab reported that the pills contained no controlled substances and “for unknown reasons,” the state prosecutor waited a month to move for dismissal. Two years later, Manuel sued the City of Joliet and its officers for violation of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging two Fourth Amendment violations: his false arrest and his prolonged unlawful post-arrest detention.
The district court dismissed Manuel’s challenge to his arrest under the applicable two-year statute of limitations, because Manuel’s lawsuit had been filed more than two years after the date of his arrest (although within two years of his release from detention). As for the detention, the district court relied on circuit precedent to rule that a detention occurring after “lawful process” is instituted (here, the county judge’s detention order) could be challenged only under the due process clause, not the Fourth Amendment. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed.
The Fourth Amendment question answered by the court
Today’s holding is clear: An unlawful “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.” Despite stray suggestions by lone justices in some prior cases, such a pretrial detention claim “fits the Fourth Amendment … as hand in glove.” When some formal “legal process” has gone forward based on, as was alleged here, false law enforcement statements, that process “has done nothing to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause requirement.” The Fourth Amendment, and not the due process clause, “provides the appropriate lens through which to view [such] a claim.”
Remaining questions not answered
Justice Kagan’s crisp opinion acknowledges that it “addresses only the threshold inquiry,” and notes that determinations of “the elements of, and rules associated with, an action seeking damages” for an unlawful-pretrial-detention action still must be made. Specifically here, the question whether the Fourth Amendment action “accrues” on the day the detention started, or does not accrue until the detention ends, remains (although the majority does provide an end-point, saying in a footnote that for an unlawful pre-trial detention claim, “once a trial has occurred, the Fourth Amendment drops out”). After offering “brief comments” regarding the general relationship of state common law rules and remedies to federal civil rights actions, the court remanded on any remaining issues, repeating a familiar point: “[w]e are a court of review, not of first view.”
Here is the court’s general guidance: Federal courts reviewing claims under Section 1983, when not bound by federal law, should “look first to the common law of torts.” But such common law is “meant to guide, rather than to control,” federal actions, “more as a source of inspired examples than of prefabricated components” (quoting Hartman, 2006). Federal courts can apply, select among, or adjust common-law approaches, and “must closely attend to the values and purposes of the constitutional right at issue.”
Justices Alito and Thomas dissent, but not from the narrow holding
Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, begins: “I agree with the Court’s holding …: The protection provided by the Fourth Amendment continues to apply after ‘the start of legal process.’” That much, then, is unanimous. Alito disagrees, however, with any further suggestion that “new Fourth Amendment claims continue to accrue as long as pretrial detention lasts.” He says this would “stretch the concept of a seizure much too far.” Similarly, Manuel should not receive the benefit of a “favorable termination” accrual rule, because that rule applies only to common-law “malicious prosecution” claims, and those sorts of claims are not Fourth Amendment claims in Alito’s view.
Alito argues instead that a Fourth Amendment violation is “fully accomplished … when an impermissible seizure [first] occurs” – so that the two-year limitations period would have run in this case. (On this narrow point Thomas filed a separate two-paragraph dissent, saying that although he agrees generally with Alito, he would leave the precise moment of accrual open for a case in which it actually matters.) Alito’s “first seized” accrual theory would conflict with a contrary “continuing violation” theory that has previously been advanced by Justice Ginsburg — a disagreement that the majority today assiduously avoids resolving.
Finally, Alito criticizes the majority for not considering every issue included in the “Question Presented” that Manuel asked the court to review. Kagan responds in footnote 10 that “we have resolved” the primary issue presented, and the fact that “Manuel jumped the gun” on further issues “provides no warrant” for “our doing so too.”
Although Alito also claims that the court’s opinion “inject[s] much confusion” and will “dramatically expand Fourth Amendment liability,” the Fourth Amendment ruling that the majority does announce – that the Fourth Amendment, and not the due process clause, governs a claim of unlawful pretrial detention – was the same answer given previously by ten other federal appellate courts. It seems narrow enough to give lower courts guidance while not unnecessarily resolving further points that were not well-presented, or well-argued, here.