In January 2015, the Seventh Circuit, recognizing that it was an outlier among the Circuits in holding that pretrial detainees could not sue under the Fourth Amendment but rather instead sued under the Due Process Clause to challenge his/her detention, stated that a request by a detainee to overturn settled Circuit precedent was “better left for the Supreme Court.” In the Supreme Court’s words, it granted cert “on cue,” and on March 16, 2017, overturned the Seventh Circuit’s precedent by holding that pretrial detainees retained the right to sue under the Fourth Amendment over their detention for unlawful search and seizure. The Court held that the Fourth Amendment governs a claim for unlawful pretrial detention even beyond the start of legal process.
Manuel v. Joliet involved the claims of Elijah Manuel, who was arrested for unlawful possession of a controlled substance after being pulled over by Joliet police. In his possession was a vitamin bottle containing pills which officers believed to be a controlled substance. At the scene, a field test was conducted to determine if the bottle’s contents were in fact illegal, and the test was negative for controlled substances. Notwithstanding the negative field test, Manuel was arrested and taken to the police station so the pills could be tested a second time.
The second test was similarly negative for a controlled substance. Despite the two negative test results, the police technician who performed the second test issued a false report attesting that pills tested positive and in his “training and experience,” were actually ecstasy.
At Manuel’s probable cause hearing later the same day, the Court relied exclusively on the criminal complaint to find that probable cause existed for the continued detention. Because the criminal complaint had relied exclusively on the false report of the technician, the Court’s probable cause finding was similarly rested on a false report. As a result of the probable cause finding, Manuel was held over for trial at the County jail.
Approximately two weeks later, the state police lab issued a report regarding their reexamination of the pills, which found that they did not constitute controlled substances, thus eliminating any basis for Manuel’s continued detention. However, it took another month for the state to request dismissal of the charge, resulting in a total of 48 days spent in pre-trial detention.
Manuel sued, arguing that the City and police officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights by arresting him at the traffic stop without cause, and then “detaining him in police custody” for seven weeks based upon “made up evidence.” The District Court dismissed the suit, first on statute of limitations grounds because he filed suit more than two years from the date of his arrest, but also based on precedent within the Seventh Circuit that pretrial detention following the start of legal process could not give rise to a Fourth Amendment claim. The Seventh Circuit upheld the dismissal based on its prior precedent, although it noted that it was an outlier among the Circuits (see above), with ten Circuits (including the Third Circuit) having taken the position that the Fourth Amendment right to be free from seizure except upon probable cause extends through the pre-trial period.
In overturning the Seventh Circuit, the Supreme Court of the United States stated that Manuel’s claims “fit” the Fourth Amendment “like a glove,” in that: (a) the Fourth Amendment protects the right of people to be secure in their persons against unreasonable seizures, which protection Manuel sought; and (b) government officials detained (i.e., seized) him unreasonably based on false evidence as opposed to probable cause. Under the Fourth Amendment, seizures are only reasonable if based on probable cause that the individual committed a crime. The Court held these Fourth Amendment rules apply regardless of whether the complained of detention precedes or follows the start of legal process – and it does not matter whether a criminal complaint has or has not been filed at the time of the detention in issue for the Fourth Amendment to be impacted.
While holding that Manuel’s arrest and detention were both to be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court’s decision did not fully resolve the question of whether Manuel could proceed on his claims, as an open question remained regarding the application of the two year statute of limitations to those claims. Specifically, the Court did not resolve the question of when the Fourth Amendment claim began to accrue for purposes of calculating the expiration of the limitations period – whether it is the time of the arrest/initiation of legal process (as the City argued) or the dismissal of the criminal charges (as Manuel argued). While noting that all but two other Circuits had applied the “favorable termination date” as the claim accrual date as part of the elements of a Fourth Amendment claim under these circumstances, the Court recognized that the Seventh Circuit did not address the elements of such a claim because it failed to recognize it from the start, and it was therefore the Circuit Court’s responsibility to decide this question as a Court of “first view.”
For Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court’s decision in Manuel may ultimately have minimal to no impact, given that our Circuit case law recognized the validity of Fourth Amendment claims to pretrial detention both before and after commencement of legal process. However, the Court’s decision should nonetheless serve as a reminder to local law enforcement, jails/prisons, and the Courts that all arrests and pretrial detentions are subject to the probable cause requirement – and that false reports do not get you probable cause!