False arrest, also called wrongful arrest, is detaining someone without legal cause. False arrest is a civil offense. A Statute of Limitations is a legal deadline to file suit after an offense. It varies by state but is generally 2 to 3 years.
The most common suit is against store security guards for accusing customers of shoplifting and attempting to physically detain them. Police have partial legal immunity from false arrest allegations, called qualified immunity, but they remain liable if they arrest without probable cause, for mistaken identity or to abuse their power.
Wallace v. Kato
Prior to 2007, the courts were often liberal with plaintiffs, beginning the clock on the Statute of Limitations when a complaint was filed, an arrest was made or a prosecution began. In the 2007 Supreme Court decision on Wallace v. Kato, that changed. The clock starts now on the day of the offense itself, so the plaintiff is racing the clock to file the charges, and the defendant gains the advantage by procrastinating.
Results of Wallace v. Kato
The same year as Wallace v. Kato, 2007, Jose Lopez had his wrongful arrest case against the Chicago Police Department dismissed, based on Wallace v. Kato. Lopez was charged with murder in 2002 and arrested. According to Lopez, the conditions of that arrest were wrongful. He was not acquitted of the murder, however, until 2005. In 2006, he filed a false arrest tort. When the case was heard in 2007, given that the Statute of Limitations clock started when he was first arrested, Judge Der-Yeghiayan ruled for the plaintiff and vacated the charges.
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