Supreme Court considers if man jailed 8 years can sue for false arrest

WASHINGTON (AP) – 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 following 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.

Kenneth Flaxman, Wallace’s lawyer, 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.

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 if they would be sued, Chief Justice John Roberts said.

Chicago police officers Kristen Kato and Eugene Roy brought Wallace in for questioning in Handy’s death in January 1994. In the course of an interrogation that went through the night, Wallace said he was subjected to a “good cop/bad cop” routine that included being slapped and kicked. In the officers’ account, Wallace was free to leave at any time.

Eventually, Wallace confessed. He tried and failed to have his statements thrown out on the grounds that he was arrested without probable cause and that his confession was coerced.

He was convicted of first degree-murder in 1996 after a trial in which Wallace claimed he shot Handy in self defense or, alternatively, in mutual combat, attorneys for the officers argued in court papers.

Wallace appealed the conviction. The Illinois Appellate Court eventually threw out the confession because it was the product of an arrest made without probable cause.

Prosecutors at that point decided not to try Wallace again, but would reinstate the murder charge against Wallace if they get additional evidence, the officers’ lawyers said.

A ruling is expected before July.

The case is Wallace v. Chicago Police Officers, 05-1240.