WASHINGTON (CN) – Blessing fabrication-of-evidence claims against a prosecutor, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the window to sue began at the end of the trial in which the evidence was used.
Edward McDonough, a former commissioner on the Rensselaer County Board of Elections, claims the special prosecutor appointed to investigate claims of election fraud during the 2009 primary election in Troy, N.Y., targeted him because McDonough’s father had “turned his back” on the prosecutor when the prosecutor wanted to run for district attorney.
The prosecutor, Youel Smith, allegedly drafted false sworn statements pinning the fraud scheme on McDonough and told a lab to use a “new” method for testing DNA when the initial results did not tie McDonough to envelopes that held forged ballots.
After McDonough was acquitted on the charges against him, he brought a civil suit against Smith. Though the Second Circuit found that the time had run out for McDonough to bring his claims, the Supreme Court reversed 6-3 this morning.
Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said fabrication of evidence claims should be governed by the statute of limitations for the common law tort of malicious prosecution, the most similar tort on the books. She wrote that starting the clock when a criminal defendant learns of allegedly fabricated evidence would carry a host of practical problems for them.
“A significant number of criminal defendants could face an untenable choice between (1) letting their claims expire and (2) filing a civil suit against the very person who is in the midst of prosecuting them,” Sotomayor wrote. “The first option is obviously undesirable, but for a criminal defendant’s perspective the latter course, too, is fraught with peril: He risks tipping his hand as to his defense strategy, undermining his privilege against self-incrimination and taking on discovery obligations not required in the criminal context.”
In a three-page dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas – joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch – wrote the court should not have even reached a decision in the case because McDonough has not pointed to a specific constitutional right Smith violated.
This, Thomas, wrote, makes it difficult to determine just when the statute of limitations starts running.
“McDonough asks the court to bypass the antecedent question of the nature and elements of his claim and first determine its statute of limitations,” Thomas wrote. “We should have declined the invitation and dismissed the writ of certiorari as improvidently granted.”
In a statement Thursday, Hogan Lovells attorney Neal Katyal hailed the decision as a vindication of important rights.
“We are thrilled that the Supreme Court recognized the terrible injustice that had been done to Mr. McDonough, in preventing him from even bringing his case against these prosecutors,” Katyal said. “Prosecutorial abuse is a serious problem in this nation and the Supreme Court today took an important step to rectify it.”
Thomas O’Connor, an attorney with the firm Napierski, VanDenburgh, Napierski & O’Connor who represented Smith, said Smith’s legal team will stand by to defend against the civil suit.
“The court has stated this claim must be litigated, so that’s what we’ll do,” O’Connor said in a statement.