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7th Circuit blasts lawyers in reinstating malicious prosecution suit

October 22, 2013

A man wrongly prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned for the arson of Frankton High School more than 10 year ago was ultimately freed, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Tuesday blistered attorneys in a subsequent malicious prosecution lawsuit who successfully argued in the U.S. District Court for dismissal of the man's federal complaint.

The panel reversed and remanded in Billy Julian v. Sam Hanna, et. al., 13-1203, reinstating his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 malicious prosecution suit.

In 2003, Billy Julian was convicted of arson and other crimes related to the 2001 fire at the Madison County school, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. During post-conviction relief, he was able to prove that a key witness who claimed he met Julian at the school before the fire actually had been on home detention and could not have been at the scene without triggering an ankle monitor, which hadn’t happened.

Julian was released in 2006, but the state sought to retry him, scheduling a retrial in 2007 while Julian was considering suing Madison County sheriff’s officer Sam Hanna and others. “The defendants threatened Julian in an effort to deter him from filing a suit for malicious prosecution,” Judge Richard Posner wrote for the panel.

The suit also names as a defendant current Frankton Police Chief David Huffman, who was a town officer at the time of Julian’s arrest. Hanna now serves as police chief in Elwood, also in Madison County.

“On the advice of lawyers whom he consulted he decided to defer filing such a suit until the judgment in his retrial ... but the trial date kept getting rescheduled.  ... In  July (2010) the state dismissed all the charges against Julian. He filed this suit in November 2011.”

The panel ruled that District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the Southern District of Indiana in Indianapolis wrongly dismissed Julian’s complaint with prejudice in a ruling that agreed with defendants who argued Julian’s suit was untimely. “But she was mistaken,” Posner wrote. “Under both state and federal law a malicious prosecution claim does not accrue until the criminal proceeding that gave rise to it ends in the claimant’s favor.”

Julian’s claim therefore was timely, the panel held in an opinion that also took to task arguments proffered by the defense. The defense argued Julian had remedies in state court for false arrest and false imprisonment, but the panel held these were inadequate remedies because the state held out the possibility of retrying him for years.

“After being released from prison in May 2006, Julian remained in limbo for more than four years. Limbo is not as bad as hell, but it’s sufficiently bad that it can’t be written off completely,” Posner wrote. “Yet that is what the defendants ask us to do: recognize no remedy for malicious prosecution by Indiana public officers, leaving the defendant remediless if he manages to avoid jail or prison for any of the time for which he’s maliciously prosecuted.”

“Defense counsel exceeded the bounds of responsible advocacy by arguing … that because the absolute immunity from suits against state officers for malicious prosecution was decreed by the Indiana legislature, it satisfies due process — ‘legislative due process’ — and therefore bars this suit,” Posner wrote. “Were that correct it would mean that the Indiana legislature, provided only that it complied with its procedures governing legislative enactment, could with impunity strip residents of Indiana of all their federal and state constitutional rights.

“In holding that Indiana’s failure to provide an adequate remedy for malicious prosecution by public officers opens the door to federal malicious prosecution suits against such officers, we don’t mean to belittle the state’s interest in limiting officers’ liability,” the panel held, noting several states have enacted caps in such cases.

“A qualified immunity would not protect the deliberately wrongful (indeed outrageous) conduct alleged in Julian’s complaint.”
 

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