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Munoz v. Rivera

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

June 23, 2015

Cesar Munoz, Plaintiff,
v.
Officer Norbert Rivera, Detective Edwin Dickinson, Detective Robert Rutherford and the City of Chicago, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

ELAINE E. BUCKLO, District Judge.

In this action, plaintiff alleges that a City of Chicago police officer and two City detectives violated, conspired to violate, and failed to intervene to prevent the violation of his constitutional due process rights during criminal proceedings against him. Specifically, plaintiff claims that defendants fabricated evidence that twice led to jury convictions for the 1997 murder of his girlfriend, Magdaliz Rosario. After each of those convictions was reversed by the Illinois Appellate Court, a judge tried and acquitted plaintiff of the crime, but not before plaintiff spent over ten years in prison.[1] This lawsuit, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, ensued.

Before me is defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint in its entirety. For the reasons that follow, I grant the motion.

I.

Defendants articulate a cascade of reasons for dismissing the first count of plaintiff's complaint, which asserts a constitutional violation captioned "Fabrication of Evidence." Cmplt. at 9. First, defendants argue that this putative constitutional claim is, in substance, a claim for malicious prosecution, and that such claims are not actionable pursuant to - 1983 because a state law remedy exists. Next, defendants argue that the Seventh Circuit does not recognize a constitutional claim for "fabrication of evidence" absent allegations-of which there are none here-of a kind that would bring the claim within the scope of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), i.e., that prosecutors failed to disclose facts relating to the manner in which the allegedly fabricated evidence was obtained. Defendants further contend that even if a constitutional claim for "fabrication of evidence" exists, the only evidence the complaint suggests was fabricated was defendants' trial testimony, for which defendants are immune from civil liability.

Defendants go on to argue that even if plaintiff adequately pleads a cognizable constitutional claim based on fabrication of evidence, that claim is time barred because it accrued decades ago, at the time the evidence was fabricated. Finally, defendants argue that qualified immunity shields them from liability for the conduct plaintiff attributes to them. Defendants insist that these flaws doom all of the counts in plaintiff's complaint.

The overarching theme of plaintiff's response to this battery of arguments is that defendants' analysis relies on outdated Seventh Circuit law, and that more recent cases make clear that allegations of evidence fabrication support a Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment due process claim. In addition, plaintiff argues that the complaint adequately pleads such a claim, as well as claims for failure to intervene and conspiracy. Plaintiff further insists that his claims are not time barred because, pursuant to Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), he could not have pursued them until he was finally acquitted of the underlying crime. Finally, plaintiff argues that defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity because the due process right he claims defendants violated was well established at the time of their alleged conduct.

II.

The approach courts in this district have taken to analyzing due process claims based on the fabrication of evidence has indeed evolved in recent years. As the Seventh Circuit's discussion in Saunders-El v. Rohde, 778 F.3d 556 (7th Cir. 2015), explains, until recently, district courts commonly interpreted Newsome v. McCabe, 256 F.3d 747 (7th Cir. 2001), and its progeny "as an edict from this court that evidence fabrication-based due process claims can never form the basis of a constitutional tort." Saunders-El, 778 F.3d at 560. But the Saunders-El court called that view "inaccurate, " and said it required "clarification." Id.

The court then explained that although Newsome, Fox v. Hayes, 600 F.3d 819 (7th Cir. 2010), and Brooks v. City of Chicago, 564 F.3d 830 (7th Cir. 2009), "establish that allegations that sound in malicious prosecution must be brought pursuant to state law, " 778 F.3d at 560, more recent cases, including Whitlock v. Brueggemann, 682 F.3d 567 (7th Cir. 2012), Fields v. Wharrie, 740 F.3d 1107 (7th Cir. 2014) (" Fields II "), and Petty v. City of Chicago, 754 F.3d 416 (7th Cir. 2014), belie the "categorical[]" argument that "a claim of evidence fabrication cannot form the basis of a due process claim under - 1983 and must instead be brought as a state law malicious prosecution." Saunders-El, 778 F.3d at 560.

Indeed, in Whitlock, the court expressly stated that "a police officer who manufactures false evidence against a criminal defendant violates due process if that evidence is later used to deprive the defendant of her liberty in some way." 682 F.2d at 580. And in Fields II, the court "made clear that fabricating evidence, including witness testimony, violates a clearly established constitutional right, such that qualified immunity does not shield the manufacturers of such evidence from liability." Saunders-El, 778 F.3d at 560 (citing Fields II, 740 F.3d at 1114).

The Saunders-El court was careful, however, not to replace one categorical rule with another, underscoring that "not every act of evidence fabrication offends one's due process rights...." Id. And as the court previously explained in Petty v. City of Chicago, 754 F.3d 416, 423 (7th Cir. 2014), a plaintiff's use of phrases such as "[m]anufactured false evidence... are not magic talismans" that "give rise to a cognizable claim where one does not exist." Petty v. City of Chicago, 754 F.3d 416, 423 (7th Cir. 2014) (citing Whitlock and Fields II ). What matters, the Petty court explained, is "the true nature of the claim" and its "underlying facts." Id.

Here, the parties offer competing interpretations of Whitlock and Fields II, and they dispute whether and to what extent those cases undermine any support Newsome offers for defendants' arguments. In the end, however, I need not grapple with the nuances of those cases, or the fine distinctions they articulate between cognizable and non-cognizable claims based on fabrication of evidence, because although the more recent cases discredit the argument that Newsome categorically bars § 1983 claims based on allegedly fabricated evidence, none of them suggests the existence of a cognizable constitutional claim based on the facts alleged here.

Indeed, this case is factually distinct from the foregoing cases, most notably with respect to the type of evidence plaintiff claims was fabricated (to the extent his complaint identifies that evidence at all-more on that in a moment). In Whitlock, the plaintiff offered evidence that the state's "investigative team, " which included both police officers and prosecutors, placed a witness "widely known in town for his alcohol problems" in seclusion for several days, then "supplied him money and alcohol and allegedly fed him additional details about the crime" before taking his statement. 682 F.3d at 571, 572. Police similarly "led" another witness with "a history of mental illness and drug abuse" to "concoct a tale" ...


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