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When a criminal defendant beats his charges by winning a ruling that suppresses evidence from an illegal search, he cannot later sue the police for the cost of successfully defending himself, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. In Hector v. Watt, Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Robert E. Cowen found that “damages for an unlawful search should not extend to post-indictment legal process, for the damages incurred in that process are too unrelated to the Fourth Amendment privacy concerns.” But in a concurring opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard L. Nygaard said he would have reached the same result in a simpler way. The illegal search, Nygaard said, was not the “proximate cause” of Eugene Hector’s damages since there were three “intervening or superceding” causes — a magistrate issuance of a warrant; the prosecutor’s decision to pursue the case; and a grand jury’s indictment. Eugene Hector was stopped by police in Dubois, Pa., and held while officers obtained a warrant to search his plane, where they later seized 80 pounds of hallucinogenic mushrooms. In his criminal case, Hector successfully argued that several state troopers had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him while they secured a warrant. The evidence was suppressed and the charges dismissed. Then, in a civil rights suit brought under Section 1983, Hector sought damages against four officers for the costs he incurred in defending himself — $23,000 in attorney’s fees, $3,500 in bail-bond expenses, and $2,000 for travel between Pennsylvania and his home in California. Senior U.S. District Judge William L. Standish of the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity; that decision was affirmed by the 3rd Circuit. But when the case went forward, Standish ruled that Hector could not seek damages for his legal expenses. Now the 3rd Circuit has upheld that ruling, too, finding that such expenses are not truly related to a Fourth Amendment violation. Judge Cowen, who was joined by Senior U.S. District Judge Morton I. Greenberg, said the U.S. Supreme Court has instructed that courts faced with civil rights suits over constitutional violations should look for similar common-law causes of action and apply that law. Under the common law, Cowen found that recovering costs incurred while defending against a prosecution is allowed only under a claim of malicious prosecution. By contrast, he said, the torts of false arrest or imprisonment provide damages “up until issuance of process or arraignment, but not more.” As a result, Cowen said, Hector is “on the horns of a dilemma” because if his claim is treated like a false arrest, his damages stop at the time of indictment; while if it is treated like malicious prosecution, he must prove that he was innocent of the crime. Even if Hector’s claim were treated like common law trespass, Cowen found that he still had no authority to seek such damages because “the exclusionary rule was not part of the common law.” But Cowen said that analogies to the common law weren’t the only reason for rejecting Hector’s theory of damages. In Section 1983 cases, Cowen said, the Supreme Court has also instructed judges to consider whether the tort they are applying by analogy is consistent with the policies and purposes of federal civil rights laws. And when weighing a constitutional claim, the high court has also said that judges must consider “the nature of the interests protected by the constitutional right in question.” Since Hector’s Fourth Amendment claim is most analogous to an invasion of privacy claim, Cowen found that his damages should be limited to compensating him for that invasion. The 2nd Circuit, he said, took a similar approach in Townes v. City of New York, which held that “victims of unreasonable searches or seizures may recover damages directly related to the invasion of their privacy — including (where appropriate) damages for physical injury, property damage, injury to reputation, etc.; but such victims cannot be compensated for injuries that result from discovery of incriminating evidence and consequent criminal prosecution.” Cowen also found that the ruling was supported by the Supreme Court’s recent jurisprudence on the exclusionary rule that have significantly limited its application. While he didn’t question the way the rule was applied in Hector’s criminal case, Cowen found that the question in his civil suit was whether he was entitled to continue to benefit from it. Hector’s lawyer, Michael L. Rosenfield of Pittsburgh, Pa., argued that imposing financial liability on police would add to the deterrent effect of the exclusionary rule. But Cowen found that such a policy could lead to anomalous results since a serious and shocking Fourth Amendment violation might result in small damages, while a less serious one could result in massive legal fees. “The liability Hector seeks under Section 1983 could often have little relation to the seriousness of the Fourth Amendment violation,” Cowen wrote. “Given the social importance of police enforcement, we think it is irresponsible to impose potential liability out of proportion to the errors committed. The resources any community has to devote to police protection are scarce, and Hector’s way of calibrating liability would misallocate those limited resources by focusing on the wrong types of errors, while at the same time having the unfortunate consequence of reducing the cost of misconduct to criminals,” Cowen wrote.

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