Access to Justice

McDonough v. Smith

In McDonough v. Smith, the Supreme Court considered when the statute of limitations begins to run on a constitutional claim that a state official used fabricated evidence to initiate and continue a criminal prosecution.

Case Summary

Edward McDonough was prosecuted on felony charges based on fabricated evidence. After being acquitted, he sued the prosecutor in his case, who allegedly forged witness affidavits and falsified other evidence that was used at trial and in preliminary proceedings. McDonough brought his claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which allows individuals to file suits for damages against state officials who have violated their constitutional rights. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that McDonough could not pursue these claims because he filed suit after the statute of limitations had expired. That limitations period, the court said, began running as soon as McDonough knew or should have known that fabricated evidence was being used against him. McDonough filed a petition for certiorari, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

CAC filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of McDonough, arguing that the statute of limitations in cases like this should not begin running until the criminal prosecution has ended. This rule, we argue, is the best fit for McDonough’s constitutional claim and furthers the remedial goals of Section 1983. As we explain, using fabricated evidence to wrongly make someone stand trial is not a one-time harm. It is an ongoing violation that continues until the prosecution has definitively ended, and only then should the limitations period begin. In addition, forcing victims to sue state officials while they are being prosecuted by those officials will discourage valid claims, defeating Section 1983’s goal of deterring constitutional violations.

Some courts have reached the same result by drawing an analogy between constitutional claims for fabrication of evidence and the common-law tort of malicious prosecution. Because the limitations period for malicious prosecution claims does not begin until criminal proceedings are over, these courts have reasoned, the same must be true for fabrication-of-evidence claims. In our brief, we explain why our approach is more faithful to Section 1983’s text and history and the Court should adopt it instead. Section 1983 was enacted to protect the unique federal rights guaranteed by the Constitution, not the rights protected by state tort law, and any analogies between the two are bound to be imperfect. While courts should look to common-law principles as a point of reference, they should not mechanically adopt the rules of the most “analogous” tort in Section 1983 cases. Indeed, doing so will, in some cases, undermine the purpose of Section 1983, which was to protect the uniquely federal rights established by the Constitution. Instead of relying on such rigid analogies, courts should adopt common-law rules only when they help advance the values and purposes of the constitutional right at issue.

In a 6-3 opinion, the Court held that the statute of limitations on a Section 1983 claim of fabricated evidence does not start until the criminal proceedings have ended. The Court relied in part on similarities between constitutional claims for fabricated evidence and tort claims for malicious prosecution, while reaffirming that such comparisons “are meant to guide rather than to control the definition of § 1983 claims.” The Court also relied on practical considerations, explaining that forcing criminal defendants to sue while their prosecutions are still ongoing would impose on them “an untenable choice” between letting their claims expire and “filing a civil suit against the very person who is in the midst of prosecuting them.”

Case Timeline

  • March 4, 2019

    CAC files amicus brief

    U.S. Sup. Ct. Amicus Brief
  • April 17, 2019

    The Supreme Court hears oral arguments

  • June 20, 2019

    The Supreme Court issues its decision

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