Respondent Youel Smith prosecuted McDonough, a former election official, for fraud arising from a primary election; the prosecution was initiated and continued on allegedly fabricated evidence, fabricated affidavits, false testimony and faulty DNA analysis. McDonough was indicted and tried twice, the first trial ending in a mistrial and the second ending in an acquittal. Less than three years after the acquittal, McDonough filed an action in federal district court alleging malicious prosecution and fabrication of evidence before the grand jury and at the two trials, in violation of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and 14th Amendments. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit dismissed the fabrication-of-evidence claim as untimely, because the statute of limitations began to run when McDonough became aware of the use of fabricated evidence, which occurred well before his acquittal and thus more than three years before he filed the federal civil action.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for a majority of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh, reversing the 2nd Circuit.
Although the limitations period presumptively runs from the point at which the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action, some claims may not realistically be brought while the violation is ongoing, allowing for a later accrual date. The majority began by identifying the specific constitutional right alleged to have been infringed, which was problematic because McDonough did not identify a particular constitutional provision or right. But the 2nd Circuit treated the claim as alleging a violation of procedural due process — the right not to be deprived of liberty (in pretrial restrictions on his travel and movement) on the basis of fabricated evidence. The majority assumed, without deciding, that this articulation of the right was sound and considered the limitations question on that basis; it left for another day questions about other constitutional rights that might be violated by a prosecutor’s fabricating evidence independent of any loss of liberty, such as harm to reputation or the substantive due process right not to be subject to conduct that “shocks the conscience.”
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