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Monday, December 11, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Man Who Tossed Murder Rap Can’t Sue Again

CHICAGO (CN) - The 7th Circuit refused to give a man a second bite at the apple with claims against officers whose police work put him behind bars on charges for which he later received a "certificate of innocence."

Angel Rodriguez was convicted of murder by an Illinois jury in 2000, but a state appellate court overturned his conviction that year, finding that the evidence was insufficient.

Rodriguez then filed a civil suit accusing two police officers and Cook County of violating his rights by unduly influencing a witness to identify him as the killer. A federal judge granted summary judgment in favor of one officer, and a jury returned a verdict in favor of the second officers. The 7th Circuit affirmed.

After Illinois passed a law in 2008 that created certificates of innocence for people who served time on subsequently overturned convictions, Rodriguez received his certificate and filed a new lawsuit. His complaint named the original three defendants, as well as three prosecutors and government entities.

Rodriguez said the certificate of innocence creates a new claim and restarts the statute of limitations for his civil rights suit.

U.S. District Judge Suzanne Conlon dismissed his claims, however, finding that the doctrine of res judicata barred those against the three original defendants and immunity shielded the prosecutors.

The 7th Circuit affirmed on Dec. 15.

"No state statute can authorize relitigation of a federal claim resolved by a federal court," Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for a three-judge panel. "An element of the judicial power under Article III of the Constitution is the authority to make a conclusive decision, one not subject to legislative revision. Even the powers of Congress are severely limited once a federal court has resolved a case."

Though state legislatures may control time for litigation against new parties because federal courts use state law periods of limitations, the statute in question does not extend the limitations period. Time begins at a conviction's vacatur, the court ruled, because the vacatur is a precondition for obtaining a certificate.

Additionally, the 2008 statute only authorizes suits against the state, Easterbrook noted. "Thus although the issuance of a certificate of innocence creates a new claim for relief against Illinois, it does not have any effect on the time to sue a prosecutor or the Office of the State's Attorney."

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