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Home / Opinion Digests / Civil Rights / Civil Rights – Constitutional – Due Process – Exculpatory Evidence – Withheld by Police – Civil Practice – Statutes of Limitations & Repose – Qualified Immunity –Tort/Negligence – Obstruction of Justice

Civil Rights – Constitutional – Due Process – Exculpatory Evidence – Withheld by Police – Civil Practice – Statutes of Limitations & Repose – Qualified Immunity –Tort/Negligence – Obstruction of Justice

Chapman v. Rhoney (Lawyers Weekly No. 12-04-0626, 20 pp.) (Martin Reidinger, J.) 1:10-cv-258; W.D.N.C.

Holding: Even though North Carolina has a 10-year statute of repose for personal injury claims, the statute of repose does not apply to Reconstruction-Era civil rights claims.

The court accepts the magistrate judge’s recommendation and grants defendants’ motions to dismiss plaintiff’s obstruction of justice claim but denies the motions as to plaintiff’s claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Plaintiff alleges that the defendant-police officers intentionally withheld substantial exculpatory evidence when plaintiff was being prosecuted for two murders. Plaintiff was convicted and sentenced to death. After spending several years on death row, plaintiff was released after the defendants’ misconduct was discovered and plaintiff’s convictions were vacated.

Statute of Limitations

Even though plaintiff learned of the alleged constitutional violation in 2003, a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for damages arising from an unconstitutional conviction or sentence does not accrue until such conviction or sentence has been invalidated. Under Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), plaintiff’s § 1983 claims accrued on Nov. 6, 2007, when the state court issued an order vacating his convictions. Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on Nov. 3, 2010, within the three-year statute of limitations.

Statute of Repose

The N.C. statute of repose provides that no action for personal injury “shall accrue more than 10 years from the last act or omission of the defendant giving rise to the cause of action.” G.S. § 1-52(16). Because the complaint alleges that defendants’ wrongful conduct allegedly occurred between June 1992 and November 1994, and the complaint was not filed until Nov. 2010, nearly 15 years later, defendants argue that plaintiff’s § 1983 claims are barred by the statute of repose.

Defendants offer no precedent or other legal authority to support the application of a state statute of repose to a federal civil rights action. The Supreme Court has rejected the application of state laws which would undermine the goals of the civil rights statutes.

The court concludes that application of the statute of repose in this case to defeat plaintiff’s claims would be manifestly inconsistent with the central objective of the Reconstruction-Era civil rights statutes, which is to ensure that individuals whose federal constitutional or statutory rights are abridged may recover damages or secure injunctive relief.

Qualified Immunity

The Fourth Circuit recognized as early as 1964 that a prosecutor’s failure to turn over exculpatory evidence violated a criminal defendant’s due process rights, even where the prosecutor had no knowledge of the evidence because the investigating officers failed to disclose it to the prosecution. Barbee v. Warden, Md. Penitentiary, 331 F.2d 842 (4th Cir. 1964). The Fourth Circuit has recognized that a police officer who withholds exculpatory information from a prosecutor can be liable under § 1983 because the non-disclosure deprives a criminal defendant of the right to a fair trial. Goodwin v. Metts, 885 F.2d 157 (4th Cir. 1989); Carter v. Burch, 34 F.3d 257 (4th Cir. 1994).

The magistrate judge correctly determined that Goodwin and Carter gave defendants fair warning that the withholding of exculpatory evidence from the prosecution could subject them to civil liability.

Therefore, the magistrate judge correctly concluded that plaintiff had stated a valid due process claim and that the right was clearly established at  the time of  the violations.

Municipal Liability

Plaintiff alleged that the defendant-city had an official policy that required officers to provide only typewritten reports to the prosecution, thereby implicitly allowing its officers to withhold from the prosecution handwritten notes, telephone memos, pending lab work, and case reports from other cases. This policy, according to plaintiff, fostered a custom in which police officers would withhold these materials from the prosecution, even when they contained exculpatory information, and allowed officers to keep clandestine files with exculpatory materials away from the prosecution and therefore, criminal defendants. Plaintiff alleged that defendants Rhoney and Sams, as well as other officers, withheld exculpatory evidence on multiple occasions in accordance with this custom. Plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to state a valid § 1983 claim against the city.

Obstruction of Justice

Plaintiff filed his obstruction of justice claim within three years of the vacation of his convictions – and thus within the statute of limitations. However, since the last acts of defendants giving rise to plaintiff’s causes of action occurred in 1994, plaintiff’s state-law obstruction of justice claim is barred by the 10-year statute of repose.

Defendants’ motions to dismiss are granted in part and denied in part.


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