United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division
April 1, 2002
KEVIN JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF,
VILLAGE OF RIVERDALE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Milton I. Shadur, United States District Judge.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Kevin Johnson ("Johnson") has filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section
1983") action, including related state law claims, against Village of
Riverdale and two of its police officers (collectively "Riverdale
Defendants") and a Cook County Assistant State's Attorney. Riverdale
Defendants have joined in a Fed. R. Civ. P. ("Rule") 12(b)(6) motion to
dismiss Johnson's Complaint — Count I (the Section 1983 claim) on
statute of limitations grounds and the other four counts as consequently
lacking a federal question anchor. With that motion now having been fully
briefed, this opinion addresses only the viability of the Section 1983
What follows in the Facts section is a precis of Johnson's Complaint,
which must of course be taken as true for Rule 12(b)(6) purposes. That
being done, the ensuing discussion explains why Johnson prevails and
Riverdale Defendants do not.
On February 10, 1998 Johnson's mother, a Riverdale resident, was
stabbed to death in her bedroom. When Johnson (then age 23) returned that
evening and discovered her dead body, he immediately reported the murder
by placing a 911 phone call.
Riverdale police responded, took Johnson and his younger brother into
custody and proceeded to interrogate Johnson all that night and the
following morning. As the result of threats and other unconstitutional
interrogation tactics, Johnson — even though innocent —
confessed falsely to the murder.
Johnson was then denied bond and spent well over a year in jail
awaiting trial. Meanwhile defendants intentionally failed to pursue
evidence that would have established Johnson's innocence and would have
implicated his mother's boyfriend (the real killer).
When Johnson went on trial in January 2000, all three individual
defendants (the police officers and the Assistant State's Attorney)
testified falsely about his "confession" and "actively withheld the
exculpatory fact that said confession had been unlawfully coerced"
(Complaint ¶ 15). Despite the bogus "confession," Johnson was
acquitted of all charges on January 11, 2001. This action was brought a
year later, on January 9, 2002.
It is well established that Illinois-based Section 1983 actions are
subject to a two-year statute of limitations. Both parties agree, then,
that Johnson's claim predicated on unconstitutional conduct in 1998 was
time-barred by January 2002 unless Johnson can look to Heck v. Humphrey,
512 U.S. 477 (1994) as postponing the accrual of that claim until
Johnson's acquittal. Here is
the explanation of Heck set out in
Washington v. Summerville, 127 F.3d 552, 555 (7th Cir. 1997) — a
case that, according to Riverdale Defendants' mistaken perception,
supports their limitations argument:
In Heck, the Court held that a plaintiff seeking
damages for an allegedly unconstitutional conviction
or imprisonment, or for other harms caused by
unlawful actions that would render a conviction or
sentence invalid, has no § 1983 cause of action
until the conviction or sentence is reversed,
expunged, invalidated, or impugned by the grant of a
writ of habeas corpus. Heck, 512 U.S. at 486-88, 114
S.Ct. at 2372-73. That is, if a judgment for the
plaintiff "would necessarily imply the invalidity of
his conviction or sentence," the plaintiff's §
1983 cause of action does not arise, and the statute
of limitations on the action does not begin to run,
until or unless the plaintiff's conviction or
sentence has been held invalid. Id. at 487, 114
S.Ct. at 2372-73. Conversely, if "the plaintiff's
action, even if successful, will not demonstrate the
invalidity of any outstanding criminal judgment
against the plaintiff," his § 1983 cause of
action arises, and the statute of limitations on the
action begins to run, when the plaintiff knows or
should have known that his constitutional rights
have been violated. Id.
Before this opinion turns to the measurement of Johnson's coerced
confession claim against that yardstick, one threshold question —
also answered by Washington — should be addressed. On this subject
the parties agree (Riverdale Defendants Mem. 3 and Johnson Mem. 4): Heck
applies with equal force to "claims, which, if successful, would
necessarily imply the invalidity of a potential conviction on a pending
criminal charge" (Washington, id. (emphasis in original), then citing and
quoting with approval Smith v. Holtz, 87 F.3d 108, 112-13 (3d Cir.
1996)). That is the situation posed here — when it came to
Johnson's actual trial, as stated earlier, he was acquitted.
Now to the ultimate merits. In this instance, according to Johnson
(who, as already explained, must be credited for present purposes), there
was no evidence other than the coerced confession that could arguably
connect Johnson to his mother's murder. And that being the case, a
judgment for Johnson in an attempted Section 1983 action that his
"confession" was a nullity "would necessarily imply the invalidity of
[any] conviction." That critical element of Johnson's case effectively
distinguishes it from Washington and from Gonzalez v. Entress, 133 F.3d 551
(7th Cir. 1998) (the other case sought to be invoked by Riverdale
Defendants), for in neither of those cases could it be said that the
establishment of the plaintiff's Section 1983 claim would necessarily
have tainted the conviction.
That alone is enough to defer the accrual of the claim that is now
under consideration to the date in 2001 when Johnson was in fact
exonerated. And that deferral plainly spells defeat for Riverdale
Defendants' limitations argument. But an added point (though not
necessary to the present decision) is worth making in terms of what has
become the much-mooted footnote 7 to the Heck opinion (512 U.S. at 487
n. 7). As the Court said there in part, dealing with an allegation of an
unreasonable (and hence unconstitutional) search:
In order to recover compensatory damages, however,
the § 1983 plaintiff must prove not only that
the search was unlawful, but that it caused him
actual, compensable injury, see Memphis Community
School Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 308 (1986),
which, we hold today, does not encompass the
"injury" of being convicted
and imprisoned (until his conviction has been overturned).
Just so here: In the absence of an actual determination that there was no
cause that could legitimately (or even arguably) support any charges
against Johnson, his detention pending trial could not have "caused him
actual, compensable injury" — after all, an ultimate acquittal on
any one of a number of possible grounds would not necessarily render that
pretrial detention unconstitutional. But where as here the detention was
the fruit of a poisoned tree (to borrow a familiar metaphor from another
area of federal jurisprudence), compensatory damages from that detention
are recoverable — and that determination was the direct product of
Johnson's trial and acquittal.
Later constitutional Violations
Riverdale Defendants also contend (this time correctly) that Johnson
cannot ground his Section 1983 action on the officers' or Assistant
State's Attorney's false testimony at his trial (on that score, see
Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325 (1983) and its progeny). But the aspect of
Johnson's Section 1983 claim that looks to conduct by the Riverdale
officers (and the Assistant State's Attorney) that is concededly within
the two-year pre-lawsuit time period goes well beyond testimony alone:
Johnson asserts the continued withholding of exculpatory evidence by
those defendants that not only caused his continued detention but also
forced him to trial.
On that score the opinions in Newsome v. McCabe, 256 F.3d 747, 752-53
(7th Cir. 2001) and 260 F.3d 824, 825 (7th Cir. 2001) (per curiam)
expressly confirm "that a claim along these lines states a genuine
constitutional tort" (256 F.3d at 752). And Newsome did not announce new
law — it relied expressly on Jones v. Chicago, 856 F.2d 985 (7th
Cir. 1988). Indeed, Gonzales, 133 F.3d at 555 itself (citing Jones)
expressly recognizes that "the use of a coerced confession could be a
violation separate from the coercion, and efforts by the police to
conceal vital facts from the prosecutor and court in order to frame an
innocent person could be still another violation." So that facet of
Johnson's claim also readily survives Riverdale Defendants' attack.
Riverdale Defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion has failed in its entirety,
and it is therefore denied. They are ordered to answer Johnson's
Complaint on or before April 12, 2002.
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