549 U.S. 384 (2007), 05-1240, Wallace v. Kato

Docket Nº:05-1240.
Citation:549 U.S. 384, 127 S.Ct. 1091, 166 L.Ed.2d 973
Opinion Judge:Scalia, Justice
Party Name:Andre WALLACE, Petitioner, v. Kristen KATO et al.
Case Date:February 21, 2007
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 384

549 U.S. 384 (2007)

127 S.Ct. 1091, 166 L.Ed.2d 973

Andre WALLACE, Petitioner,


Kristen KATO et al.

No. 05-1240.

United States Supreme Court

February 21, 2007

Argued Nov. 6, 2006.


[127 S.Ct. 1092] Syllabus

In January 1994, Chicago police arrested petitioner, a minor, for murder. He was tried and convicted, but the charges were ultimately dropped in April 2002. In April 2003, he filed this suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 against the city and several of its officers, seeking damages for, inter alia, his unlawful arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The District Court granted respondents summary judgment, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed, ruling that the §1983 suit was time barred because petitioner's cause of action accrued at the time of his arrest, not when his conviction was later set aside.


The statute of limitations upon a §1983 claim seeking damages for a false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment, where the arrest is followed by criminal proceedings, begins to run at the time the claimant becomes detained pursuant to legal process. Pp. 387-397.

(a) The statute of limitations in a §1983 suit is that provided by the State for personal-injury torts, e.g., Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235, 249-250, 109 S.Ct. 573, 102 L.Ed.2d 594; here, two years under Illinois law. For false imprisonment and its subspecies false arrest, "[t]he . . . cause[s] of action provid[ing] the closest analogy to claims of the type considered here," Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 484, 114 S.Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed.2d 383, the statute of limitations begins to run when the alleged false imprisonment ends, see, e.g., 4 Restatement (Second) of Torts §899, Comment c, that is, in the present context, when the victim becomes held pursuant to legal process, see, e.g., Heck, supra, at 484, 114 S.Ct. 2364. Thus, petitioner's false imprisonment did not end, as he contends, when he was released from [127 S.Ct. 1093] custody after the State dropped the charges against him, but rather when he appeared before the examining magistrate and was bound over for trial. Since more than two years elapsed between that date and the filing of this suit--even leaving out of the count the period before he reached his majority--the action was time barred. Pp. 387-392.

(b) Petitioner's contention that Heck compels the conclusion that his suit could not accrue until the State dropped its charges against him is rejected. The Heck Court held that "in order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a §1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence

Page 385

has been [set aside]. A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under §1983." 512 U.S., at 486-487, 114 S.Ct. 2364. Even assuming that the Heck deferred-accrual rule would be applied to the date petitioner was first held pursuant to legal process, there was in existence at that time no criminal conviction that the cause of action would impugn. What petitioner seeks is the adoption of a principle going well beyond Heck: that an action which would impugn an anticipated future conviction cannot be brought until that conviction occurs and is set aside. The impracticality of such a speculative rule is obvious.

The fact that §1983 actions sometimes accrue before the setting aside of--indeed, even before the existence of--the related criminal conviction raises the question whether, assuming the Heck bar takes effect when the later conviction is obtained, the statute of limitations on the once valid cause of action is tolled as long as the Heck bar subsists. However, this Court generally refers to state-law tolling rules, e.g., Hardin v. Straub, 490 U.S. 536, 538-539, 109 S.Ct. 1998, 104 L.Ed.2d 582, and is unaware of Illinois cases providing tolling in even remotely comparable circumstances. Moreover, a federal tolling rule to this effect would create a jurisprudential limbo in which it would not be known whether tolling is appropriate by reason of the Heck bar until it is established that the newly entered conviction would be impugned by the not-yet-filed, and thus utterly indeterminate, §1983 claim. Pp. 392-397.

440 F.3d 421, affirmed.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which SOUTER, J., joined, post, p. 397. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined, post, p. 400.


Kenneth N. Flaxman argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was John J. Bursch.

Benna Ruth Solomon, Deputy Corporation Counsel of the City of Chicago, argued the cause for respondents. With her on the brief were Myriam Zreczny Kasper, Chief Assist-ant Corporation Counsel, Jane Elinor Notz, Assistant Corporation Counsel, and Lawrence Rosenthal[*]

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[127 S.Ct. 1094]OPINION

Scalia, Justice.

Petitioner filed suit under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C. §1983, seeking damages for an arrest that violated the Fourth Amendment. We decide whether his suit is timely.


On January 17, 1994, John Handy was shot to death in the city of Chicago. Sometime around 8 p.m. two days later, Chicago police officers located petitioner, then 15 years of age, and transported him to a police station for questioning. After interrogations that lasted into the early morning hours the next day, petitioner agreed to confess to Handy's murder. An assistant state's attorney prepared a statement to this effect, and petitioner signed it, at the same time waiving his Miranda rights.

Prior to trial in the Circuit Court of Cook County, petitioner unsuccessfully attempted to suppress his station house statements as the product of an unlawful arrest. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 26 years in prison. On direct appeal, the Appellate Court of Illinois held that officers had arrested petitioner without probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. People v. Wallace, 299 Ill.App.3d 9, 17-18, 233 Ill.Dec. 444, 701 N.E.2d 87, 94 (1998). According to that court (whose determination we are not reviewing here), even assuming petitioner willingly accompanied police to the station, his presence there "escalated

Page 387

to an involuntary seizure prior to his formal arrest." Id., at 18, 233 Ill.Dec. 444, 701 N.E.2d, at 94. After another round of appeals, the Appellate Court concluded on August 31, 2001, that the effect of petitioner's illegal arrest had not been sufficiently attenuated to render his statements admissible, see Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590, 95 S.Ct. 2254, 45 L.Ed.2d 416 (1975), and remanded for a new trial. Judgt. order reported sub nom. People v. Wallace, 324 Ill.App.3d 1139, 282 Ill.Dec. 137, 805 N.E.2d 756 (2001). On April 10, 2002, prosecutors dropped the charges against petitioner.

On April 2, 2003, petitioner filed this §1983 suit against the city of Chicago and several Chicago police officers, seeking damages arising from, inter alia, his unlawful arrest. 1 The District Court granted summary judgment to respondents and the Court of Appeals affirmed. According to the Seventh Circuit, petitioner's §1983 suit was time barred because his cause of action accrued at the time of his arrest, and not when his conviction was later set aside. Wallace v. Chicago, 440 F.3d 421, 427 (2006). We granted certiorari, 547 U.S. 1205, 126 S.Ct. 2891, 165 L.Ed.2d 915 (2006).


Section 1983 provides a federal cause of action, but in several respects relevant here federal law looks to the law of the State in which the cause of action arose. This is so for the length of the statute of limitations: It is that which the State provides for personal-injury torts. Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235, 249-250, 109 S.Ct. 573, 102 L.Ed.2d 594 (1989); Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 279-280, 105 S.Ct. 1938, 85 L.Ed.2d 254 (1985). [127 S.Ct. 1095] The parties agree that under Illinois law, this period is two years. Ill. Comp. Stat., ch. 735, §5/13-202 (West 2003). Thus, if the statute on petitioner's cause of action began to run at the time of his unlawful arrest, or even at the time he was ordered held by a magistrate, his

Page 388

§1983 suit was plainly dilatory, even according him tolling for the two-plus years of his minority, see §5/13-211. But if, as the dissenting judge argued below, the commencement date for running of the statute is governed by this Court's decision in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed.2d 383 (1994), that date may be the date on which petitioner's conviction was vacated, in which case the §1983 suit would have been timely filed.

While we have never stated so expressly, the accrual date of a §1983 cause of action is a question of federal law that is not resolved by reference to state law. The parties agree, the Seventh Circuit in this case so held, see 440 F.3d, at 424, and we are aware of no federal court of appeals holding to the contrary. Aspects of §1983 which are not governed by reference to state law are governed by federal rules conforming in general to common-law tort principles. See Heck, supra, at 483, 114 S.Ct. 2364; Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 257-258, 98 S.Ct. 1042, 55 L.Ed.2d 252 (1978). Under those principles, it is "the standard rule that [accrual occurs] when the plaintiff has 'a complete and present cause of action.'" Bay Area Laundry and Dry Cleaning Pension Trust Fund v. Ferbar Corp. of Cal., 522 U.S. 192, 201, 118 S.Ct. 542, 139 L.Ed.2d 553 (1997) (quoting Rawlings v. Ray, 312 U.S. 96, 98, 61 S.Ct. 473, 85 L.Ed. 605 (1941)), that is, when "the plaintiff can file suit and obtain relief," Bay Area Laundry,...

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