False arrest lawsuit may be too late

Andre Wallace faces the distinct possibility that the legal system that wrongly kept him in jail for a third of his life will now tell him he waited too long to seek compensation. Several Supreme Court justices indicated Monday they are inclined to agree with lower court rulings that Wallace missed a deadline by waiting until 2003 to sue the Chicago police officers who arrested him illegally in 1994.

Wallace was freed from prison in 2002, after Illinois courts ruled his arrest was illegal, reversed his murder conviction and caused prosecutors to drop charges against him. He had been in custody since shortly after John Handy was shot to death in 1994, when Wallace was 15. He had two years in which to file his civil rights lawsuit.

The question before the justices is whether the two-year clock began running when Wallace was arrested in 1994, when he was released from custody in 2002, or at some point in between. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wallace should have taken some action in the two years after his arrest. In similar cases in other parts of the country, appeals courts have said false arrest claims can't be filed until convictions are nullified. Wallace's attorney, said the court would compound his client's injury by telling him the deadline, or statute of limitations, had expired. "It's just tough. You're seized for 8 1/2 years and you can't go to state court and you can't go to federal court," Flaxman said. But the Supreme Court is a stickler for deadlines, and several justices said the claim should have been filed closer to the arrest.

The deadline serves several interests, including peace of mind of the police officers who otherwise would not know for years whether they would be sued, Chief Justice John Roberts said. A ruling is expected before July.


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