American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - Michele Black v. Montgomery County - Third Circuit
Decrease font size
Increase font size
September 12, 2016
  Michele Black v. Montgomery County - Third Circuit
Headline: Third Circuit Holds Pre-trial Restrictions Constitute a "Seizure" for Fourth Amendment Purposes, and a Stand-Alone Fabrication of Evidence Claim Under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment Can Proceed Even if There Is No Conviction

Area of Law: Civil Rights

Issues Presented: Whether a person released pre-trial, but ordered to appear in court at the state's command, is "seized," as is required for a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim? Whether a conviction is a prerequisite to a stand-alone due process claim under the Fourteenth Amendment against a state actor for fabrication of evidence?

Brief Summary: Michele Black was interrogated and accused by police of committing arson, despite a Fire Chief's report that the fire was electrical and the fact that electricians were at the scene repairing wiring at the time the fire started. Shortly thereafter, Black flew from her home in California to Pennsylvania for her arraignment because Pennsylvania authorities issued an arrest warrant and directed her return. Black was required to post unsecured bail of $50,000. She was told the bond would be forfeited if she did not attend all court proceedings, compelling her to travel across the United States to attend a dozen pre-trial hearings in a year. At trial, Black was found not guilty after a jury deliberated for less than forty minutes.

Black filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law, alleging that various law enforcement officers and fire department officials violated her constitutional rights in connection with criminal proceedings that ended in her acquittal. The district court dismissed the case, finding that Black was not "seized" as required for a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim, and that a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim for fabricated evidence required that Black be convicted at trial. On appeal, the Third Circuit first held that Black was seized for purposes of her Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim even though she was never incarcerated. Second, that a conviction is not a prerequisite to a stand-alone fabricated evidence claim against state actors under the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, the Third Circuit reversed the district court's judgment and remanded the matter for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

Extended Summary: On November 21, 2012, a fire started at Michele Black's childhood home in Lower Merion Township while electricians were upgrading the home's wiring. The electricians extinguished the fire before they called the fire department. After arriving at the home, the Fire Chief reported the fire was electrical. However, despite the Fire Chief's report and fire damage on the electrical outlet where the fire began, a Deputy Fire Marshal concluded the fire was started intentionally. Subsequently, Black was interrogated and accused by police of committing arson. Less than one month later, Black flew from her home in California to Pennsylvania for her arraignment because an arrest warrant had been issued and she had been directed to return. Black was required to post unsecured bail of $50,000. A condition of her bail was that Black was required to appear at all court proceedings otherwise a bench warrant would be issued for her arrest. This compelled Black to travel across the United States to attend twelve pre-trial hearings in just a year. On April 23, 2014, Black's trial began. On April 24, 2014, Black was found not guilty after a jury deliberated for less than forty minutes.

Black filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging, inter alia, malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth Amendment and violation of her Fourteenth Amendment due process rights due to the alleged fabrication, suppression and destruction of evidence by various law enforcement officers and fire department officials. The district court dismissed the case, finding that Black was not "seized" as required for a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim, and that a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim for fabricated evidence required that Black be convicted at trial. On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed the district court's judgment and remanded the matter for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

First, the Third Circuit held that Black was "seized," thus supporting her Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim, even though she was never incarcerated. The Court adopted the Supreme Court's concept of "continuing seizure" discussed in a concurrence, and after citing relevant case law, concluded that an individual under pretrial restrictions and ordered to appear in court is "seized" for Fourth Amendment purposes. The Court, thus, found that Black's circumstances demonstrated she experienced "constitutionally significant restrictions on [her] freedom of movement by the defendants for the purpose of obtaining h[er] presence at a judicial proceeding" and she was "seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment." Accordingly, the Court vacated and remanded the district court's dismissal of Black's malicious prosecution claim.

Second, the Third Circuit held that a conviction is not a prerequisite to a stand-alone fabricated evidence claim against state actors under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court explained that such a claim only requires a reasonable likelihood that, absent fabricated evidence, the plaintiff would not have been criminally charged. The Court explained "reasonable likelihood" requires that a plaintiff draw a "meaningful connection" between her particular due process injury and the use of fabricated evidence against her. The Court reasoned that a plaintiff must demonstrate the fabricated evidence "was so significant that it could have affected the outcome of the criminal case." Finally, there must be "persuasive evidence supporting a conclusion that the proponents of the evidence" are aware that the evidence is incorrect or that is being offered in bad faith. Under this framework, the Court found that Black's "acquittal does not preclude her claim that the defendants intentionally fabricated evidence in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." Accordingly, the Court vacated and remanded the district court's dismissal of the fabrication of evidence claim.

The full opinion can be found at http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/153399p.pdf

Panel: Chagares, Krause, and Scirica, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: June 8, 2016

Date of Issued Opinion: August 30, 2016

Docket Number: No. 15-3399

Decided: Vacated and remanded

Case Alert Author: Brooke A. Hutchins

Counsel: Michael C. Schwartz, Counsel for Appellant; Carol A. Vanderwoude, Counsel for Appellees Township of Lower Merion, Detective Gregory Henry, Bryan A. Garner, Chief Fire Off. Charles McGarvey and Deputy Fire Marshal Frank Hand; Philip W. Newcomer, Counsel for Appellees Montgomery County and Detective John T. Fallon; and Claudia M. Tesoro, Counsel for Appellee State Trooper Robert Pomponio

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Chagares

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Prof. Mary E. Levy

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 09/12/2016 09:24 AM     3rd Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top