McDonough v. Smith: Statute of limitations for Section 1983 fabricated-evidence claim begins to run when prosecution is terminated

The statute of limitations for a §1983 suit against a prosecutor for fabricating evidence began to run when the plaintiff was acquitted in their criminal case, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 20 in McDonough v. Smith.

The statute of limitations for a §1983 suit against a prosecutor for fabricating evidence began to run when the plaintiff was acquitted in their criminal case, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 20 in McDonough v. Smith.


Edward McDonough was charged with election fraud.  He was prosecuted by Youel Smith.


McDonough was first tried in January 2012, where Smith presented allegedly fabricated evidence.  This trial resulted in a mistrial.


McDonough was re-tried in December 2012, where the allegedly fabricated evidence was again presented.  McDonough was acquitted on December 21, 2012.


Just under three years later – on December 18, 2015 – he filed a §1983 suit against prosecutor Smith.


The District Court and Second Circuit ruled that the claim was untimely because it needed to be brought when McDonough first learned of the fabricated evidence.


The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 opinion, reversed and held that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until McDonough's acquittal.


“The statute of limitations for a fabricated-evidence claim like McDonough's does not begin to run until the criminal proceedings against the defendant (i.e., the §1983 plaintiff) have terminated in his favor,” the Court held.


 “This Court often decides accrual questions by referring to the common-law principles governing analogous torts,” the Court said.  “Malicious prosecution is the most analogous common law tort here.”


“We follow the analogy where it leads:  McDonough could not bring his fabricated-evidence claim under §1983 prior to favorable termination of his prosecution,” the Court said.  “Malicious prosecution's favorable-termination requirement is rooted in pragmatic concerns with avoiding parallel criminal and civil litigation over the same subject matter and related possibility of conflicting civil and criminal judgments.”


"The requirement likewise avoids allowing collateral attacks on criminal judgments through civil litigation,” the Court said.


“There is not a complete and present cause of action … to bring a fabricated-evidence challenge to criminal proceedings while those proceedings are ongoing,” the Court concluded.  “Only once the criminal proceeding has ended in the defendant's favor, or a resulting conviction has been invalidated … will the statute of limitations begin to run.”


Justices Thomas, Kagan and Gorsuch dissented on grounds that McDonough had not pinpointed what specific constitutional right he was deprived of.


“Because it is only after pinpointing that right that courts can proceed to determine the elements of, and rules associated with, an action … we should have dismissed this case as improvidently granted,” they said.



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