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Media Alerts - Owens v. Baltimore City State's Attorneys Office, et al. -- Fourth Circuit
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November 3, 2014
  Owens v. Baltimore City State's Attorneys Office, et al. -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: One Step Closer to Redemption--Exonerated Felon's Brady Claim Lives to See Another Day

Areas of Law: Criminal, Criminal Procedure, Sovereign Immunity, Qualified Immunity

Issues Presented: (1) Whether plaintiff's § 1983 claim was barred on statute-of-limitations-grounds; (2) whether the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office enjoys sovereign immunity; (3) whether individual police officers established a qualified immunity defense for the alleged 1988 Brady violation; and (4) whether the plaintiff failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted as to his claim against the Baltimore City Police Department.

Extended Summary: In 1988, James Owens was tried and convicted for rape and murder. After twenty years in prison, Owens was released in 2008 following a successful post-conviction challenge and the entry of a nolle prosequi by the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office. During the course of several post-conviction challenges, Owens learned that the prosecution's star witness in his 1988 trial had changed his story at least eight times after first identifying Owens as the suspect, and even continued to change his story throughout the course of the trial. The prosecutors never disclosed these variations in the witness' testimony to the defense.

In 2011, just under three years after his release from prison, Owens brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office, an Assistant State's Attorney, the Baltimore City Police Department, and several Baltimore City police officers. Owens claimed these offices and individuals violated his constitutional rights by intentionally withholding exculpatory and impeachment evidence during his 1988 trial. The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed the complaint against all the defendants. First, the court held the claims were barred by the statute of limitations. In the alternative, the court held Owens' claim against the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office was barred on sovereign immunity grounds, and against the individual police officers and the Baltimore City Police Department on qualified immunity grounds. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment with respect to the dismissal of Owens' claims against the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office but vacated and remanded the judgment in all other respects.

The Fourth Circuit first held that Owens' claims were timely filed within the statute of limitations period. Neither party disagreed that Owens had three years to file his § 1983 claim; they disagreed, however, as to when this three-year limitation period began to run. Because § 1983 does not provide a statute of limitations, the Fourth Circuit compared Owens' § 1983 claims to the most analogous common law tort claim - in this case, malicious prosecution. The limitations period for a malicious prosecution claim commences when the proceedings against the plaintiff "are resolved in his favor." The Fourth Circuit determined that to be the date the government entered the nolle prosequi, not the date on which the state court granted Owens' post-conviction petition and granted him a new trial.

Although timely filed, the Fourth Circuit held that the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office enjoyed sovereign immunity from Owens' claims. Recognizing that the Maryland courts have not considered the issue of whether this entity may be sued, the court held that absent a statutory or constitutional provision giving an entity a unique legal identity, it cannot be sued under Maryland law. Following the analysis of the Maryland Court of Appeals in Boyer v. State, the court found that Maryland constitutional and statutory law establishes only the "State's Attorney," or the person occupying the position of State's Attorney, as an entity amendable to suit. The court found the one "passing reference" to the "office of the State's Attorney" in the Maryland constitution was only a shorthand for the position of State's Attorney, and therefore did not establish the State's Attorney's Office as an entity amendable to suit.

Next, the court addressed Owens' claims against the individual police officers. In order to establish a qualified-immunity defense, a public official must demonstrate (1) that the plaintiff has not alleged a violation of a constitutional right, or (2) that such constitutional right was not clearly established at the time of its alleged violation. The court found that Owens pled enough facts to show he had a more-than-conceivable chance of success on the merits. First, the court found that Owens' allegations stated a plausible § 1983 claim, because Owens alleged enough facts to demonstrate police officers withheld material exculpatory or impeachment evidence in bad faith in violation of Fourth Circuit precedent following Brady v. Maryland. Second, the court held that Fourth Circuit precedent was clearly established at the time of Owens' trial in 1988 and therefore the officers had notice that their bad faith failure to disclose exculpatory evidence was a violation of Owens' constitutional rights.

Moving from the individual officers to the department, the court held that the Baltimore City Police Department did not enjoy the benefits of qualified immunity. Recognizing this, the BCPD instead argued on appeal that Owens failed to state a claim for which relief can be granted. Considering the claim from this procedural posture, the Fourth Circuit considered whether the BCPD followed a custom, policy, or practice by which the officials violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights. Owens' complaint alleged a theory of custom "by condonation." The court held that this was sufficient to survive the motion to dismiss. The fact that the police officers withheld information on multiple occasions (the variations in the star witness' statements) could establish the necessary pattern or practice.

Chief Judge Traxler, concurring in part and dissenting in part, dissented on the basis that Owens' claims were untimely and that the individual officers had established a qualified immunity defense. First, the Chief Judge would have begun the tolling of the statute of limitations when the state court granted Owens a new trial on the basis that that was the most final and favorable termination of the proceedings giving rise to the Brady violation. In the alternative, the Chief Judge would have held that the claims against the officers were barred because a police officer's duty to disclose under Brady was not clearly established at the time of Owens' 1988 trial.

Judge Wynn, also concurring in part and dissenting in part, dissented on the grounds that the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office is an entity amenable to suit. Judge Wynn relied on the language the majority considered to be only a "passing reference" to the office in the Maryland Constitution.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.


Panel: Chief Judge Traxler, and Judges Motz and Wynn

Argument Date: 01/28/2014

Date of Issued Opinion: 09/24/14

Docket Number: No. 12-2173

Decided: Affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded by published opinion

Case Alert Author: Megan Raker

Counsel: ARGUED: Charles N. Curlett, Jr., LEVIN & CURLETT LLC, Baltimore, Maryland; Laura Ginsberg Abelson, BROWN, GOLDSTEIN & LEVY, LLP, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant. Daniel C. Beck, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland; Michele J. McDonald, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Joshua R. Treem, BROWN, GOLDSTEIN & LEVY, LLP, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant. Douglas F. Gansler, Attorney General, H. Scott Curtis, Assistant Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland; George A. Nilson, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Judge Motz

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor:
Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 11/03/2014 12:54 PM     4th Circuit  

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