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Owens v. Baltimore City State's Attorneys office

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

September 24, 2014

JAMES OWENS, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
BALTIMORE CITY STATE'S ATTORNEYS OFFICE; MARVIN BRAVE, Individually and in his Official Capacity as an Assistant of the Baltimore City State's Attorneys Office; BALTIMORE CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT; GARY DUNNIGAN, Individually and in his Official Capacity as an Officer and Detective of the Baltimore City Police Department; JAY LANDSMAN, Individually and in his Official Capacity as an Officer and Detective of the Baltimore City Police Department; THOMAS PELLIGRINI, Individually and in his Official Capacity as an Officer and Detective of the Baltimore City Police Department, Defendants - Appellees, and MAYOR AND CITY COUNCIL OF BALTIMORE, Defendant

Argued January 28, 2014

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. (1:11-cv-03295-GLR). George L. Russell III, District Judge.

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.

Before TRAXLER, Chief Judge, and MOTZ and WYNN, Circuit Judges. Judge Motz wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge Traxler concurs as to Parts III., IV.A., and V. and dissents as to Parts II. and IV.B., and Judge Wynn concurs, except for Part III. Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Wynn each wrote a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

OPINION

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DIANA GRIBBON MOTZ, Circuit Judge:

James Owens brought this 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. In his complaint, Owens alleges that the defendants violated his constitutional rights by intentionally withholding exculpatory evidence during his 1988 trial for the rape and murder of Colleen Williar. The district court dismissed the complaint in its entirety against all defendants on statute-of-limitations grounds. In the alternative, the court held that the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office enjoyed sovereign immunity, the individual police officers enjoyed qualified immunity, and Owens's cause of action against the Baltimore City Police Department failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.

Owens appeals the dismissal of his complaint for failure to state a claim. Accordingly, we recount the facts as alleged by Owens in his complaint, accepting as true all well-pleaded facts. See Minor v. Bostwick Labs., Inc., 669 F.3d 428, 430 n.1 (4th Cir. 2012).

A.

In the early morning hours of August 2, 1987, Colleen Williar was raped, robbed, and murdered in the second-floor bedroom of her Baltimore City apartment. The following day, one of Williar's neighbors, James Thompson, contacted the city police department to inquire about a reward it had offered for information relating to Ms. Williar's death. Thompson claimed that he had found a knife outside of Ms. Williar's apartment the previous evening, which he had carried home and cleaned before realizing its connection to the crime. Over the course of Thompson's conversation with police, however, it became apparent that Thompson had not simply " happened" on the knife, as he originally claimed. Rather, in response to questioning from Officers Thomas Pelligrini, Gary Dunnigan, and Jay Landsman (collectively, " the Officers" ), Thompson asserted that he had retrieved the knife at the behest of his friend, James Owens. The Officers executed a search warrant at Owens's apartment, but found no physical evidence linking Owens to the crime. Even though the search was fruitless, police arrested Owens on the basis of Thompson's statement. A grand jury then indicted Owens for Ms. Williar's murder, rape, and burglary.

On the eve of Owens's trial, Assistant State's Attorney (" ASA" ) Marvin Brave, the prosecutor assigned to Owens's case,

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began to question the veracity of Thompson's version of events. When ASA Brave raised these concerns with Thompson, the witness retracted his statement and offered another explanation for the knife's acquisition. This time, Thompson stated that the knife belonged to him, but he claimed that it had gone missing after Owens visited Thompson at his home. The day after Ms. Williar's murder, Owens assertedly returned the knife to Thompson, who noticed blood on the weapon's blade and handle. When Thompson questioned Owens about the origin of the blood, Owens denied using the weapon and told Thompson to keep quiet about it.

At trial, ASA Brave presented only this third version of events to the jury. Brave never informed defense counsel about Thompson's earlier accounts, and thus, when cross-examining Thompson, defense counsel was unaware that the witness had changed his story several times over the course of the investigation.

Nevertheless, defense counsel apparently cast enough doubt on Thompson's testimony to prompt ASA Brave to seek out additional evidence of Owens's guilt. To this end, mid-trial, ASA Brave ordered testing of a pubic hair found on Ms. Williar's body. When the results were returned, however, they indicated that Thompson -- not Owens -- matched the sample. Concerned that Thompson was involved in the crimes, ASA Brave instructed the Officers to reinterrogate Thompson.

At ASA Brave's direction, Officers Pelligrini, Dunnigan, and Landsman brought Thompson into the stationhouse and questioned him for two hours. The Officers accused Thompson of lying on the witness stand, warned him that he " was in a lot of trouble," and asserted that he could be charged with a crime for his misrepresentations to the jury. After receiving their warnings, Thompson stated that he wanted to change his story yet again. In fact, over the course of the two-hour interview, Thompson changed his story five additional times.

In his first new attempt, Thompson told the Officers that he and Owens had broken into Ms. Williar's apartment on the day of the murder only to find Ms. Williar already dead in her bedroom. When the Officers replied that they did not believe him, Thompson offered another iteration. This time, he contended that Owens had raped and murdered Ms. Williar upstairs while Thompson waited downstairs in the living room. The Officers responded that there was evidence that Thompson had been on the second floor, and thus, his amended account could not be true. After this prompt, Thompson admitted that he had been on the second floor, but insisted that he had hidden in the bathroom during Owens's crimes. The Officers again rejected Thompson's story, stating that investigators had found physical evidence of Thompson's presence in Ms. Williar's bedroom. In response, Thompson admitted that he had been in the bedroom while Owens raped and killed Ms. Williar, but he insisted that he had refused to participate in any assault. At this point, the Officers informed Thompson that his pubic hair had been found on Ms. Williar. Faced with the forensic evidence, Thompson offered a fifth version of events. In this account, Thompson claimed that he and Owens had broken into Ms. Williar's apartment with the intent to steal her jewelry. When the pair found the victim alone in her bedroom, Owens raped and killed her, while Thompson masturbated at the foot of her bed.

After the Officers elicited this latest account, Officer Landsman told ASA Brave about Thompson's final version of events. None of the Officers disclosed that Thompson had offered several other accounts of

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what happened, all of which differed dramatically from the version of events related to ASA Brave as well as from the physical evidence.

Following his conversation with the Officers, ASA Brave immediately called Thompson back to the witness stand and had him share with the jury his new account of what happened. However, because only the Officers knew of the inconsistencies in Thompson's statements, neither ASA Brave nor defense counsel questioned Thompson about the four inconsistent versions of the story that the witness had offered before he settled on his final account. Moreover, neither ASA Brave nor the Officers told defense counsel about the discovery of Thompson's pubic hair. Indeed, when defense counsel inquired about whether there had been forensic testing of the hair, ASA Brave represented to the court that " there [hadn't] been any match made" between the sample and a suspect.[1]

The jury convicted Owens of burglary and felony murder, and the trial court sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Owens filed an unsuccessful appeal, and, over the course of the next two decades, several unsuccessful state-court petitions for post-conviction relief. In 2006, however, a state court granted Owens's request for post-conviction DNA testing. The results were returned some months later and indicated that Owens's DNA did not match the blood and semen evidence found at the scene of the crime.

On June 4, 2007, a state court granted Owens's " petition to reopen his Post Conviction Proceeding" and ordered that " by agreement of Counsel and this Honorable Court, . . . Petitioner shall be granted a new trial." During the next sixteen months, Owens remained in state prison awaiting retrial. On October 15, 2008, the State's Attorney entered a nolle prosequi, dropping the charges against him. On that date, after Owens had spent more than twenty years in prison, the state court ordered him released from incarceration.

B.

On October 12, 2011, a few days before the three-year anniversary of the nolle prosequi, Owens filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office, ASA Brave, the Baltimore City Police Department (" BCPD" ), and Officers Pelligrini, Dunnigan, and Landsman. In his complaint, Owens alleges that the defendants violated his constitutional rights by intentionally and in bad faith withholding exculpatory and impeachment evidence at his 1988 trial.

All defendants moved to dismiss the complaint. The Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office asserted that it was not an entity amenable to suit, and that even if it were, it was an " arm of the State," immune from liability. The individual Officers, the BCPD, and ASA Brave all moved to dismiss on statute-of-limitations grounds. Alternatively, the individual Officers asserted that qualified immunity protected them from suit, and the BCPD

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maintained that Owens failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted.

After Owens voluntarily dismissed the claims against the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, the district court, in an oral ruling, dismissed the claims against the other defendants. The court initially determined that Owens's claims were time barred because the limitations period for his causes of action commenced when the state court granted Owens's request for a new trial, not (as Owens claimed) on the date that prosecutors entered the nolle prosequi. Although the limitations issue disposed of all of Owens's claims, the court went on to briefly address the defendants' alternative grounds for dismissal. In a series of rulings, the court determined that the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office was entitled to sovereign immunity, that the individual Officers and the BCPD were entitled to qualified immunity, and that Owens's complaint failed to state a claim against the BCPD. Owens noted a timely appeal.

We review a district court's grant of a motion to dismiss de novo. Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993). At this stage in the proceedings, we " accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint," and " draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff." E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 440 (4th Cir. 2011). To prevail, Owens must " state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (emphasis added and internal quotation marks omitted). A claim has " facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id.

II.

We first consider whether the applicable statute of limitations bars all of Owens's claims.

Section 1983 does not contain a statute of limitations. Thus, to determine the timely filing of a § 1983 claim, courts borrow the statute of limitations from the most analogous state-law cause of action. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988(a). For § 1983 suits, that cause of action is a personal-injury suit. See Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235, 249-50, 109 S.Ct. 573, 102 L.Ed.2d 594 (1989). Maryland law affords plaintiffs three years to file a personal-injury action. See Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-101. Hence, a three-year limitations period applies to Owens's claims.

The parties agree that Owens had three years to file his § 1983 action. They disagree, however, as to the date on which this three-year limitations period began to run. Appellees contend that the three-year clock on Owens's claims began to run on June 4, 2007, the date on which the state court vacated his conviction and granted him a new trial. Appellees' Br. 24. Because Owens filed suit more than three years after this date (on October 12, 2011), the Appellees maintain that all of Owens's claims are time barred. Id. Owens, by contrast, maintains that the statute of limitations for his claims did not begin to run until October 15, 2008 -- the date on which prosecutors filed a nolle prosequi, finally resolving the proceedings against him. Appellant's Br. 22. Because he filed suit within three years of this date, Owens contends that he met the operative deadline.

Although state law determines the applicable statute of limitations for § 1983 claims, federal law governs the date on which that limitations period begins to run. Wallace v. Kato,

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549 U.S. 384, 388, 127 S.Ct. 1091, 166 L.Ed.2d 973 (2007). Federal law, in turn, " conform[s] . . to common-law tort principles" for purposes of determining this date. Id. " Under those principles, it is the standard rule that accrual occurs when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action" against a defendant -- that is, when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of his injury. Id. (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted).

In Wallace, however, the Supreme Court recognized that limitations on common-law torts do not always begin on the date that a plaintiff knows or has reason to know of his injury. Wallace, 549 U.S. at 388. Accordingly, it found that the " standard rule" does not always control the start of the limitations period for a § 1983 claim. Id.; see also Devbrow v. Kalu, 705 F.3d 765, 767 (7th Cir. 2013) (relying on Wallace to hold that there is no " single accrual rule for all § 1983 claims" ).

Instead, the Wallace Court held that to determine the date of accrual for a particular § 1983 claim, a court must look to the common-law tort that is most analogous to the plaintiff's § 1983 claim and determine the date on which the limitations period for this most analogous tort claim would begin to run. Id.; see also Varnell v. Dora Consol. Sch. Dist., 756 F.3d 1208, 2014 WL 2937039 (10th Cir. 2014) (noting that " [f]ollowing Wallace, we determine the accrual date of Plaintiff's claim by looking to the accrual date for the common-law tort most analogous to her § 1983 claim" ); Devbrow, 705 F.3d at 767 (holding that a court " use[s] the [accrual] rule that applies to the common-law cause of action most similar to the kind of claim the plaintiff asserts" ). For most common-law torts, a plaintiff's cause of action accrues, and the limitations period commences, when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of his injury (hence, the " standard rule" ). But if the common law provides a " distinctive rule" for determining when the limitations period for a particular tort begins to run, a court must " consider[]" this " refinement" in determining when the limitations period for the plaintiff's analogous claim under § 1983 should commence. Wallace, 549 U.S. at 388.

In Wallace, the Supreme Court addressed a § 1983 claim alleging an unconstitutional detention by police officers. 549 U.S. at 388. The Court recognized the " standard rule" for accrual, but because it found the tort of false imprisonment to be the tort most analogous to the plaintiff's § 1983 claim, it considered the " common law's distinctive treatment" of that tort in determining the start of the limitations period for the plaintiff's § 1983 claim. Id.

The Court noted that Wallace could have brought his claim under § 1983 " immediately upon his false arrest." Id. at 390 n.3. This was so because Wallace's injury commenced at that date, and " a person falsely imprisoned has the right to sue on the first day of his detention." Id. (citation omitted). The Supreme Court went on to explain, however, that under the common law, the statute of limitations for false imprisonment does not begin to run at the outset of a plaintiff's false imprisonment; rather, limitations begin to run only at the end of a plaintiff's false imprisonment. Id. at 389. Deferring to the common law's " distinctive rule," the Court selected the date on which Wallace's false imprisonment ended -- not the date on which it began -- as the start of the operative limitations period. Id. at 391-92. With this start date established, the Court held that Wallace's § 1983 claim accrued on the date that he was arraigned by a magistrate, i.e., the date on which his false imprisonment ended. Id.

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Here, the parties acknowledge that, unlike in Wallace, false imprisonment is not the tort " most analogous" to Owens's § 1983 claims. Instead, they properly agree that the tort of malicious prosecution, which the Wallace Court recognized as an " entirely distinct" tort, provides the closest analogy to Owens's Brady-like claim. See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963). Malicious prosecution redresses injuries a plaintiff sustains as a result of a defendant's improper initiation or maintenance of formal proceedings against him. See Lambert v. Williams, 223 F.3d 257, 260 (4th Cir. 2000). Because Owens contends that the Appellees violated due process by maintaining proceedings against him without disclosing exculpatory evidence, malicious prosecution provides the closest analogy to his § 1983 claims. Thus, following Wallace, we must determine the start date of Owens's § 1983 claims by looking to the start date of the common-law tort most analogous to his claims -- here, malicious prosecution.

Under the common law, the limitations period for a plaintiff's malicious prosecution claim commences when the proceedings brought against him are resolved in his favor. W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser & Keeton on Torts § 119 (5th ed. 1984); see also 3 Dan B. Dobbs, et al., The Law of Torts § 590 (2d ed. 2011); 8 Stuart M. Speiser, et al., The American Law of Torts § 28.5 (2011); 1 Fowler V. Harper, et al., Harper, James, and Gray on Torts § 4.4 (3d ed. rev. 2006). To satisfy this favorable-termination requirement, a plaintiff must show that the proceedings against him were favorably terminated " in such manner that [they] cannot be revived." Keeton, et al. at § 119. " This is true, for example, of an acquittal in court, a discharge . . . upon preliminary hearing, [or] the entry of a nolle prosequi." Id.; see also Speiser, et al. at § 28.5; Harper, et al. at § 4.4. It is not true of " [a]ny disposition of the criminal action which does not terminate it but permits it to be renewed." Keeton, et al. at § 119 (emphasis added). Under the common law, such terminations " cannot serve as the foundation for [a malicious prosecution] action," and thus, the limitations period for malicious prosecution claims does not begin to run until a truly final disposition is achieved. Id.

The grant of a new trial does not terminate the proceedings against a defendant " in such a manner that [they] cannot be revived." Keeton, et al. at § 119. Rather, it provides a procedural victory, which simply postpones the proceedings' ultimate outcome. See Harper, et al. at § 4.4 (" The termination in the plaintiff's favor must be a final one, and if the proceedings are immediately renewed for the same offense, they are sufficient to bar plaintiff's action for malicious prosecution until they are finally determined." ).

Because the grant of a new trial does not trigger the limitations period for a malicious prosecution claim, the statute of limitations on Owens's § 1983 claims did not begin to run on the date he was granted a new trial. Instead, the operative limitations period began to run on the date a malicious prosecution claim became ripe at common law, i.e., the date on which the nolle prosequi was entered. It was only on this date that proceedings against Owens were favorably terminated in such manner that they could not be revived. Because Owens filed suit within three years of this date, the statute of limitations does not bar his present cause of action.[2]

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Contrary to the Appellees' suggestion, Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed.2d 383 (1994), does not require a different result. Heck held that a prisoner may not file suit under § 1983 as long as a § 1983 judgment in his favor would imply the invalidity of his criminal conviction. See id. at 487. In this case, as the Appellees point out, the Heck bar to suit was removed as soon as the state court invalidated Owens's conviction and granted him a new trial. But contrary to the Appellees' contention, removal of the Heck bar did not compel Owens immediately to proceed under § 1983. This is so because the statute of limitations for the most analogous common-law tort, malicious prosecution, did not begin to run until the proceedings against Owens were finally terminated in his favor and could not " be revived," Keeton, et al. at § 119, i.e., when the prosecutor filed the nolle prosequi. Up until this point, Owens remained imprisoned, and the prosecutor could -- and for sixteen months did -- proceed against him without the need to seek reindictment.

The partial dissent recognizes that Heck does not resolve the statute-of-limitations issue before us. It nonetheless maintains that Owens's claims are time barred because, in the dissent's view, the statute of limitations on Owens's § 1983 claims began to run when he was granted a new trial, or when he possessed sufficient facts to know about the Appellees' illegal suppression of evidence, i.e., whenever Owens could have brought his Brady-like claim.

The dissent both acknowledges that, in determining the start date of Owens's § 1983 claims, a court must look to malicious prosecution as the closest " common law analogue," and recognizes that the date of favorable termination is the date triggering the onset of limitations for a malicious prosecution claim. But the dissent maintains that we adhere too closely to the malicious prosecution analogue. In the dissent's view, a court should consider the " underlying purpose of the elements of the common law analogue" and borrow this onset date for a § 1983 claim only if doing so would serve that underlying purpose. Because the dissent concludes ...


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