In a monumental decision last week, the Supreme Court ruled that a citizen can sue for malicious prosecution for being jailed due to the police falsifying drug test results.
In Joliet, Illinois, police stopped Elijah Manuel for a traffic violation. Manuel was subsequently searched. Law enforcement officers located a vitamin bottle containing several pills. The police suspected that the vitamins were illegal drugs and decided to perform a field test on the substance. The field test came back negative for any illegal or controlled substance. Nevertheless, the police decided to go ahead and arrest Mr. Manuel and charge him with possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute. Manuel was taken to the police station. At the station an evidence technician tested the pills again and received the same negative result. However, in his report he stated that one of the pills tested, “positive for the probable presence of ecstasy.” One of the arresting officers stated in his report that, based on his “training and experience,” he “knew the pills to be ecstasy.”
Ecstasy or “Molly,” or MDMA is a synthetic drug that can alter your mood and your perception. The chemical formula is similar to both stimulant and hallucinogenic drugs. MDMA and its derivatives can produce distorted time and sensory perception, excessive emotional warmth, and feelings increased energy and pleasure. The drug achieves these effects by altering the levels or dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. The effect of the drug can last anywhere from three to six hours.
Based on the false statements of the officers, another officer drafted and filed a sworn complaint which charged Mr. Manuel with possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute. In Texas, possession of this type of drug is classified under the Texas Health and Safety Code Section 481.103 or Penalty Group 2. Any amount of this drug will land you in felony land. That means depending on the amount you possess, you can receive a sentence of probation or serious time in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Institutional Division.
With Manuel in jail, the police laboratory tested the seized pills and once again reported that no detectable amount of a controlled substance was found. Did it end there? Nope, Mr. Manuel continued to remain a prisoner of the city. In total, Mr. Manuel spent forty-eight days in the city jail. A little less than two years after the case was dismissed, Manuel filed a lawsuit against the city and several of its police officers. The district court dismissed Manuel’s claim and reasoned that the judge’s probable cause determination could not give rise to a Fourth Amendment claim. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the claim. Of note, ten other federal courts of appeals have already disagreed with this holding. These federal courts have taken the opposite view in that the right to be free from seizure is protected by the Fourth Amendment and absent probable cause this extends through the pretrial period where a person sits in jail and waits for trial.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion reversed the Seventh Circuit and firmly rebuked the Chicago based appeals court’s position on this matter. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the opinion for the 6-2 majority and opined, “The Fourth Amendment prohibits government officials from detaining a person in the absence of probable cause. That can happen when the police hold someone without any reason before the formal onset of a criminal proceeding. But it also can occur when the legal process itself goes wrong; when for example, a judge’s probable cause determination is predicated solely on a police officer’s false statements.”
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits government officials from detaining a person without probable cause. Which is on point with what happened here. The judge’s determination of probable cause was based solely on fabricated evidence; therefore, Manuel was entitled to a Fourth Amendment claim. Manuel’s claim for relief was based on not only his arrest but also his pretrial detention or jail stay. The U.S. Supreme court summed up by stating, “All that the judge had before him were police fabrications about the pills’ content. The judge’s order holding Manuel for trial therefore lacked any proper basis. And that means Manuel’s ensuing pretrial detention, no less that his original arrest, violated his Fourth Amendment rights.”
Ron Voyles is an attorney and a chiropractor with over twenty years of experience in the litigation of personal injury and the defense of drug and alcohol crimes. Ron practices in Montgomery, Harris, Walker, Grimes, Madison, and Leon Counties.